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Watch Out for This Morton

USC: Chad, Johnnie's versatile little brother, provides excitement.

September 18, 1996|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even though it surprised no one on the USC football team or anyone who watched the team's Rose Bowl practices last December, there was an electrical charge generated when the tiniest Trojan took command of the USC-Oregon State game Saturday.

It's difficult to define a football play more exciting than the sight of a fast, little guy making slow, big guys look silly.

A guy like Chad Akio Morton.

The crowd was a bit restless early in the third quarter at the Coliseum, when a clearly superior USC team had only a 13-10 lead over Oregon State. There had even been some first-half boos, largely directed at the Trojans' inept kicking game.

Enter Morton, all 5 feet 8, 170 pounds of him.

He took a handoff from quarterback Brad Otton, burst right toward the sideline, cut left and was in the end zone faster than a hiccup.

His 73-yard run was more than half his rushing yardage in the 46-17 victory, but only a fraction of his time spent on the field. Morton is currently listed as the team's No. 5 tailback, its No. 2 right cornerback, No. 2 punt returner, No. 4 kickoff returner and a kickoff coverage guy.

You're John Robinson. What do you do with such a player, a redshirt freshman who is not only a potential game-breaker but one of the Trojans' hardest-hitting defensive players? Particularly in a week when two suspended tailbacks return, Delon Washington and Shawn Walters?

Step 1, you downplay it.

Robinson only grudgingly has given up praise for his newfound Mighty Mite.

"I don't want to propel Chad into instant stardom, but there's no question he's doing an outstanding job," he said.

On the practice field, Robinson is a low-key coach seldom given to gestures, praiseworthy or otherwise.

Yet once in a while, even he can't hold back.

Last December, Morton was asked to emulate Northwestern tailback Darnell Autry before the Rose Bowl game.

Three times in two weeks, Morton ran through USC's first-string defense. On one occasion, Robinson thrust his right fist into the air, no doubt having just been given a gratifying glimpse of future USC tailback fortunes.

But as of midday Monday, Morton didn't even know if his 143-yard game against Oregon State had kept him on the offensive unit.

Robinson said Morton will play "some" at tailback at Houston on Saturday, and will also play cornerback, on punt returns and kickoff coverage.

"I think of myself as a cornerback, but I sure enjoyed playing tailback Saturday too," Morton said.

"The way my teammates congratulated me, the big hug by Charles White [running back coach] and a wink by Coach Robinson and his saying 'Good job,' that meant more than anything that's happened to me at SC.

"If they want me to play offense, fine. But I think of myself as a cornerback. . . . I think that's my long-term position."

He gets this from his older brother, Johnnie, the USC All-American wide receiver, class of '94, and a first-round pick by the Detroit Lions.

"Johnnie told me to concentrate on cornerback, that they tend to last longer in the NFL," he said.

"And Dennis Thurman [USC's secondary coach and an NFL defensive back for nine seasons] told me he saw a lot of small running backs come into the league who soon wound up as setbacks or kick returners, and the next step was cornerback."

Football is a family affair with the Mortons. Chad Morton's mother, Katsuko, and his father, Johnnie Sr., probably hold the USC career record for football practices attended by parents.

It's a rare practice when the Mortons aren't watching every move by their speedy son, either from the top-row shade of Dedeaux Field or from the Howard Jones Field sideline.

A third son, Eric, is a 5-9, 175-pound senior wide receiver at Dartmouth and a bioengineering major. Johnnie Morton earned a USC degree and had above-average grades.

"We rarely let our boys out of sight," Johnnie Morton Sr. said. "If they ever brought home a C on a report card, they knew if there wasn't a corresponding A in something else, it meant no sports. Also, Katsuko had them reading very early. Johnnie was reading newspapers when he was 3."

The Mortons were never closer than in the summer of 1995.

Johnnie Morton Sr., a retired Northrup finance manager, had been shot several times while trying to escape a carjacking attempt on Western Avenue near 89th Street.

Before passing out, he managed to drive several blocks, where he ran into a curb. He was taken to a nearby hospital by passersby. Within six weeks, he was back at Howard Jones Field, watching Chad's first days in a Trojan uniform.

In 1994, they all had to rally around Chad, who'd lost his senior season of football at South Torrance High after suffering a broken collarbone in the season opener.

"It was heartbreaking for him. . . . We were all brokenhearted," said his father.

"He'd had a lot of recruiting letters from the Pac-10 schools, Nebraska and Texas after his junior season, but it all stopped after he couldn't play. He wanted to play at USC, so I made an appointment with John [Robinson], and I brought our own game videos that his mother had shot and that's how he got his scholarship."

A guy whose parents come to practice every day. . . . That's not cool, right?

Wrong.

"I have great parents and I love it that they come to practice," Morton said. "And I love it that they care so much about me. I made the dean's list last semester, I have a 3.58 GPA, and Mom is on me all the time, asking if I'm going to study table."

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