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Chance encounter

Johnson thought he might never get an opportunity at USC. Willingham helped him conquer self-doubt.

November 01, 2008|Gary Klein | Klein is a Times staff writer.

They met while leaving the field, a spur-of-the-moment exchange between player and coach.

USC tailback Stafon Johnson had just spent the entire 2006 game against Washington on the Coliseum sideline, another dose of first-year disappointment for the former Dorsey High star who had chosen to attend USC over Washington and Georgia.

Washington Coach Tyrone Willingham, his team having suffered a six-point defeat, grasped Johnson's shoulder and looked into his eyes.

"It will work out for you -- I know it," Willingham said. "I believe in you."

Today, after seventh-ranked USC plays winless Washington at the Coliseum, Johnson intends to deliver the same message to Willingham, who was fired this week effective at the end of the season.

"He's a great dude," Johnson said. "He always had that positive attitude, and that's why I'll always respect him."

Two years after Willingham encouraged Johnson, the junior has earned the respect of USC teammates and coaches. He also is commanding it from opponents.

Last week against Arizona, Johnson rushed for 83 yards and scored a touchdown in 19 carries, set up a field goal with a 54-yard punt return and caught three passes. But his most noteworthy contribution was a spectacular coming-of-age block that allowed quarterback Mark Sanchez to throw what proved to be the game-winning touchdown pass.

"That's just a preview of what I think I can do," Johnson said this week.

There was a time when many, including Johnson, wondered whether he would ever get an extended opportunity with the Trojans.

But after navigating a logjam at his position and persevering through personal issues and injuries in each of his three seasons, Johnson enters today's game as USC's leader in carries.

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Johnson has rushed for 354 yards and four touchdowns in 66 carries.

"He's been a team player," offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian said. "He understood when sometimes opportunities were limited, why they were limited, and he continued to work and has only gotten better."

Said Coach Pete Carroll: "He has never popped off. He's never had any attitude about anything."

In retrospect, Johnson considers his freshman season a blessing. He said he needed to learn what it meant and felt like to practice hard every day. To give maximum effort on every play. To take responsibility for his situation.

"Of course it hurt. Of course you have your struggles with yourself and you say, 'Am I not good enough?' " Johnson said. "But I learned when people complain about a situation, it only makes their situation worse."

Inspired by his late grandfather Larry Mallory, Johnson entered the 2007 season intent on showing coaches that he was worthy of regular playing time, despite a roster that included 10 tailbacks.

At Nebraska, he rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown in 11 carries, then humbly explained that he could not have done it without first enduring his freshman struggles.

Two games later at Washington, he ran for 122 yards and a touchdown in 14 carries before suffering a foot injury that derailed a promising season. Johnson was never really right again until the Rose Bowl, when he ran for 104 yards in nine carries in USC's victory over Illinois.

Looking back, he considers the injury a positive.

"If I didn't have that, it would have led to destruction," he said, "because at that time I was like, 'All right, I'm in there now. So I'm chillin'.' I was starting to slack in my schoolwork and then I got hurt.

"Just as fast as it was given to me, it's easily taken away."

Johnson, 20, prepared for this season bearing responsibility for an unexpected challenge.

After the Rose Bowl, Johnson learned that he would become a father. A son, Stafon Dazz Johnson Jr., was born during the summer.

"It helps me in my everyday life as far as knowing things need to get done," Johnson said. "There's no time to wait anymore. . . . I also have somebody else to think about.

"I cherish that and take that into consideration every time I play."

Johnson entered training camp competing for playing time with sophomores Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable and junior Allen Bradford -- all listed as co-starters for the opener at Virginia.

"I had no problem with that," Johnson said. "As long as I can see this is affecting other teams and we're getting the job done and winning, it shouldn't matter.

"Whenever they called my number, I just had to be ready."

That's the basic message Johnson relayed to Broderick Green a few weeks ago when the redshirt freshman tailback found himself on the outside looking in.

One night after practice, Johnson approached as Green sat alone at a table outside the team dining hall. The Arkansas native had been left off the travel roster for the Pacific 10 Conference opener against Oregon State.

"He was just kind of telling me, 'It's going to come. It's going to open up. Just be patient,' " Green recalled. "It helped a lot because I know what he went through."

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