One afternoon last spring, USC senior wideout Keyshawn Johnson
was navigating the streets of his old gang-infested Los Angeles
neighborhood in a road-weary 1989 Honda Accord when he stopped
to provide commentary for his traveling partner. "That's Ernie.
He's the neighborhood mechanic, fixes everybody's cars," said
Johnson. "Over there, that's Vurnelle. She's been here as long
as I can remember."
This is an article from the Aug. 5, 1995 issue
A guy on a bicycle then pulled up alongside Johnson's car and
needled him. "We're going to beat UCLA this year," the cyclist
said, "just like we beat y'all back in the Freedom Bowl." And
then he rode off around the corner.
"That's Rashad Turner," said Johnson. "Goes to Fresno State.
Man, I'm tired of hearing about Fresno State."
The disdain for Fresno State dates back three seasons, when the
proud USC program hit rock bottom in a 24-7 loss to the Bulldogs
in the Freedom Bowl on Dec. 29, 1992. That defeat led to the
dismissal of coach Larry Smith and the rehiring of John
Robinson. It has been Robinson's charge to expunge the bitter
taste left by that night in Anaheim--"I had people call me who
were really upset about that game," says former USC and Los
Angeles Ram quarterback Pat Haden, now a trustee of the
university--and to restore the school's lost glory.
What Robinson has done in less than three years--and with just
two full recruiting seasons--is remarkable. The Trojans are
16-8-1 in two seasons of Robinson II, and possessed of a
community spirit that had been lacking. "The guy [Robinson] is
amazing," says Washington Redskin coach Norv Turner, who was an
assistant at USC under Robinson from 1976 to '82. "He's brought
life back into that place. The enthusiasm he brings is unique."
Robinson has also brought talent. It is one thing to seize upon
intangibles, but what USC really needed to reestablish itself
was better players. "When I first got here, our scout team was
the equivalent of walk-ons," says fifth-year senior center
Jeremy Hogue. There was some talent in place when Robinson
returned: Johnnie Morton (Detroit Lions) and Willie McGinest
(New England Patriots) are already in the NFL; Tony Boselli was
the second player taken in April's draft, and quarterback Rob
Johnson was selected in the fourth round. "We had some good
players," says Robinson. "But the distance from the bottom
player to the top player was, I thought, tremendous." At USC the
practice motto once was: "Big man on big man," as spoken by
former assistant coach Marv Goux. It had become: Big man on
little, slow man.
But the quality has risen swiftly. USC enters the fall with the
possibility of having as many as 10 starters from the watershed
recruiting class of 1994, which included 20 high school and
junior college All-Americas. This year's class--led by
cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, the son of former Ram running back
Lawrence McCutcheon--is also strong. The plan is to have
McCutcheon in the starting lineup soon.
Robinson also plans a return to a reliance on the tailbacks,
with much expected from a pair of Texans: junior Shawn Walters
and sophomore Delon Washington. Twice last year Walters ran for
more than 200 yards, while Washington, a true freshman in '94,
rushed for 153 yards in the first two games. He sat the
remainder of the season while questions regarding his ACT score
The star power at USC, however, rests firmly with Keyshawn
Johnson, the 6'4", 210-pound senior who was not only raised in
the mean streets near USC, but also spent much of his childhood
watching Trojan practices and spending time with USC coaches and
Johnson arrived at USC via Dorsey High School and West Los
Angeles (junior) College, and has matured into a dangerous
Michael Irvin clone. Irvin, in fact, is Johnson's idol. Johnson
feasts on small defensive backs and keeps up a running dialogue
with the defense. "I talk a lot of crap, but I usually back my
talk up," he says. He passed up NFL money last spring, which
should heighten the pressure this fall. "Pressure," he says,
recalling his younger years, "was walking out my front door."
The Trojans are neither fully complete nor unbeatable. They play
at Arizona, Notre Dame and Washington, and their defense must be
better than the 385 yards a game it gave up last year if they
are to be national champions. Brad Otton, a senior transfer from
Weber State who played in seven games last season, and
fifth-year senior Kyle Wachholtz will battle for the quarterback
job. "Neither one is experienced, and that could bite us at some
point," Robinson says.
But there is one interesting statistic to consider. "This is my
third year," Robinson says. "My first time here, we won the
national championship in my third year . My third year
with the Rams, we went to the NFC Championship Game. Good things
happen in my third year."
USC hasn't been to the Rose Bowl since the 1989 season, hasn't
beaten Notre Dame since 1982 and hasn't won a national
championship since 1978. Good things are due.
THE DATA BOX
Head coach: John Robinson
Career college record: 88-22-3
10th year at USC (88-22-3)
1994 RECORD: 8-3-1
Pac-10 record: 6-2 (tied for second)
W Washington 24-17
L at Penn State 38-14
W Baylor 37-27
L Oregon 22-7
W at Oregon State 27-19
W at Stanford 27-20
W California 61-0
W at Washington State 23-10
W Arizona 45-28
L at UCLA 31-19
T Notre Dame 17-17
W Texas Tech 55-14 (Cotton Bowl)
Final '94 ranking: 13 AP, 15 CNN/USA Today
Lettermen lost: 17
Lettermen returning: 50
Returning starters, offense: 7
Returning starters, defense: 6
Sept. 23 at Arizona
Oct. 21 at Notre Dame
Oct. 28 at Washington
Player To Watch
The first thing you notice about USC sophomore defensive tackle
Darrell Russell is his calves. "Bigger than my thighs,'' says
the Trojans' fifth-year senior quarterback, Kyle Wachholtz, who
weighs 220 pounds. Russell's legs are oaken masses, providing
the power that will make him a feared lineman this fall. At
6'4 1/2" and 320 pounds, he is one of the reasons the Trojan
defense should be much improved.
Russell came to USC's attention during his junior year at St.
Augustine High School in San Diego when his coach sent a
videotape of Russell, then 6'3" and 280 pounds, dunking a
basketball after taking only one step to the rim. "Woke me up,"
says USC defensive coordinator Keith Burns.
At practice one day Russell also woke up All-America offensive
tackle Tony Boselli by beating him easily. "Boselli pulled me
aside," recalls Russell. "He said, 'If you go full speed,
nobody can block you.'"
Count on full speed and a long day for any lineman who faces him.