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August 14, 2008

Return of the return game

The Men of Troy are considered one of the fastest, most electrifying teams in the country. So, why is it that they have not had a touchdown from a punt or kickoff return in years? As of matter of fact, do they even know who the last Trojan player that took a kickoff or punt return back for a touchdown was?

"Last person I thought was Reggie Bush and I want to be the next person," smiled Ronald Johnson.

The sophomore from Muskegon, Mich. was one of the brighter points in returns last season, averaging 24.8 yards per kickoff return. Johnson and sophomore tailback C.J. Gable are expected to be taking the majority of the kickoffs this coming season. While "RoJo" was helping the Trojans get into midfield during his returns, he never took one "to the house", with his longest only going for 49 yards.

"I've watched a lot of films of kick returners and pro kickoff returners. Now I know what to look for and how to get there," said Johnson. "It's going to be a different turnaround this year."

He was also wrong about the question. It was not Reggie Bush.

While Johnson is studying his moves, some guys are looking forward to their first cracks at the return game. Sophomore wide-receiver Travon Patterson was not involved in special teams last year, partially due to an injury that cost him the 2007 season. Now healed and healthy, Patterson is apart of the punt return rotation that has also included junior tailback Stafon Johnson, sophomore tailback Joe McKnight, sophomore wide-receiver Damian Williams and red-shirt freshman wide-receiver Brandon Carswell.

While all five have the potential to be the main man on 4th downs, Patterson thinks it will be the guy who is having the better day.

"We have a lot of guys who are athletic and that can make plays; it is just hard to figure out who should be back there," said Patterson. "I guess they'll just go with who's doing the best that day."

While the talent is there, the numbers are going to have to improve. Last season, USC's punt return team averaged only 6.3 yards per return, which is half of the total in 2004 (13.5) and ranked them 99th overall last year in punt return average. During '07, Pete Carroll primarily used senior tailback Desmond Reed and McKnight.

Reed was more considered a possession guy, rather than a speed threat. McKnight had the speed, but was still a true freshman and was learning and gaining experience as the year went on.

Not to go all encyclopedia on the Trojans, but in the first half of this decade, the Trojans tallied seven punt returns for touchdowns. In the second half, they have produced zero.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the youth of our return team," said Williams.

"We had Joe (McKnight) doing it last year and he was a freshman and this year, we still have a lot of young and inexperienced guys back there, so it is a learning process and we're doing our part to get better at it."

Williams practiced punt returns last year, during his red-shirt season, so having No. 18 on the field for punts could become a common thing for the Trojans.

"I've been doing it since high school and continue to practice it in college, but it's a lot work and it's been great to learn from Joe (McKnight) and the coaches," Williams said.

Williams also could not remember who had the last punt or kickoff return for a touchdown either.

"I would think it was Reggie?"

While the youthful return team prepares for the season opener, the questions that are could surface are…Will one of these players stand out and become a go-to guy for the punt returns? Will they put up similar numbers to '07 or will they find their touch and actually finish a return in the opponent's end-zone this year? Will Carroll use more possession guys and will he look to a McKnight or a Williams for their speed? And who was the last player to take a kickoff or punt back for a touchdown…?

It was Brian Cushing, returning an onsides kick in 2006.


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