Void left by Johnson’s injury is easily filled

Junior receiver Ronald Johnson broke his collarbone in the mock game at the Coliseum Saturday, leading to what could only be termed a vast sense of uneasiness within the Trojan faithful.

I’m here to settle that apprehension.

Yes, Johnson was lined up to start opposite redshirt junior Damian Williams this season, replacing the gone-to-the-NFL Patrick Turner.

Yes, Johnson — the 6-foot, 190-pound speedster — was the Trojans’ primary big-play threat last year, leading the team with 17.3 yards per catch and hauling in an impressive eight touchdowns on only 33 catches.

And yes, freshman Matt Barkley will need all the help he can get with USC’s tough slate of road games that begins with a contest in the Horseshoe on Sept. 12.

Nevertheless, I’d argue that RoJo will hardly be missed.

Thirty-three catches is only 33 catches, no matter how you look at it.

And Williams should improve on his 58-catch, 869-yard performance of 2008 while making waves in the Heisman race. And senior tight end Anthony McCoy should display a better grasp of the offense in his second year as the starter and nearly double his 22 catches. And the carries handed to the star-studded quartet of running backs should increase even more.

But most importantly, the young receivers waiting in the wings should finally break out.

Redshirt junior David Ausberry will finally make good on his long-lofty expectations. Coming out of high school in Lemoore, Calif., Ausberry was a nearly unanimous first-team All-American. Since then, he’s caught just 30 balls in two full seasons. He’ll be expected to be Barkley’s No. 2 target until at least mid-October, when Johnson could return.

Freshman Brice Butler will get his first game action after redshirting in 2008. At 6-foot-3, he’s taller than Johnson and not as much of a burner, but the Georgia native possesses lightning-quick speed in his own right with gazelle-like legs.

“I’m ready for it,” Butler said after he learned of Johnson’s injury. “Last year I wasn’t ready. I thought I was, but I wasn’t. But now I feel like I’m ready and more mature.”

And freshman wide receiver De’Von Flournoy — the closest thing to RoJo on the USC roster — will follow in the path of Johnson and Steve Smith before him and see significant snaps as a true freshman.

“Flournoy has been special at times, and you can see it when he gets the ball in his hands,” coach Pete Carroll said. “He has really good quickness and explosiveness and has no problem catching the football.

“He’s behind in the learning process, but we’re going to have to accelerate that to fill the void here.”

Redshirt junior Jordan Cameron is the possession receiver of the reserve group. At 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he brings a tight end’s frame but a wideout’s hands to the split end spot. Sophomore Brandon Carswell and junior Travon Patterson each bring versatility and return skills to boot.

It adds up to what Williams says is a more-than-capable bunch.

“Ronald’s one of our faster guys, but Brice is fast, De’Von’s fast,” Williams said. “And Jordan Cameron’s got great hands, so each guy brings different assets that are vital parts of the game that we all need. The guys just have to be ready to step up and fill in the spots.”

The three, despite their ages — Flournoy is 18, Butler is 19, and Cameron turned 21 last month — are among the most poised Trojans. Butler could very well be the most confident player on the team. And that’s exactly what Barkley needs — a confident, ready-to-learn receiving corps.

“RoJo was a gym rat,” Williams said. “He wanted to be the best and he worked maybe the hardest of anybody on the team, but the best thing about each of our guys is that they’re all willing to learn.”

As for Williams himself, he spent all of spring and fall practice preparing to play split end — a spot usually reserved for the bigger and stronger of the two receivers — because of Johnson’s presence at flanker. But when Johnson went down and the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Ausberry took his place in the offense, Williams moved back to flanker, where he set up shop across from Turner in 2008.

“It’s not really a difference for me because that’s what I played last year,” Williams said. “I know all the positions, I move around a lot, so it’s really more of switching my mentality from one spot to the other.”

And that’s exactly what the receiving corps, as a whole, must do: switch its mentality.

Ausberry must become Barkley’s short-route outlet opposite the tight end. Butler must become a deep threat out of the slot. And at least one out of Flournoy, Cameron, Carswell or Patterson must show consistent flashes of their wide-ranging skill sets.

All three are easily doable. If done in conjunction, the three will mean easy pickings for Barkley and consistent success for USC.

“Looking Past the X’s & O’s” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Pedro at pmoura@usc.edu.