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Mar. 02, 2010 - Tim Rohan

Johnson Raises the Bar

With a raspy voice, one NFL prospect addressed questions at the NFL Scouting Combine. Water wouldn’t chase away the sound — it just couldn’t be helped. But USC running back Stafon Johnson certainly has an excuse for sounding hoarse.

Johnson was bench pressing in the USC weight room in late September last year when the bar slipped from his right hand and fell on his throat per ESPN.

The freak accident forced the senior to miss the rest of the season. Yet in one of the more inspirational stories of the combine, Johnson is making his way back to the field.

He attended the senior bowl and carried the ball four times for just three yards — but Johnson’s comeback began to take form. And at the combine, Johnson took another step.

He was back in the weight room and performed the bench press for his potential employers in the NFL and was able to bench 225 pounds 13 times.

“I’m good,” Johnson said. “I’m healthy, I’m running. I’ve practiced. I’ve played in a game. I’m practicing up to full speed. … Right now I’m fine. I’m eating the way I want to. I’ve put on the weight I want to. The only thing that bothers me is my vocals. And I’m not a quarterback, thank God. So I don’t have to worry about that.”

Johnson made it seem like his voice was the only reminder of the accident. Before the accident, it seemed like the Compton California native was on his way to making a case to play in the NFL.

Throughout his time at USC, Johnson has split carries with an abundant amount of highly recruited tailbacks that the Trojans had in the stable — the likes of Joe McKnight and C.J. Gable.

After carrying the ball just three times his freshman season, Johnson was USC’s second leading rusher in 2007, averaged 6.9 yards per carry and was one of three running backs to rush for more than 600 yards for the Trojans.

Johnson found himself in the role as the team’s goal line running back his junior season in 2008. That was fruitful for the physical runner and he led the team with over 700 yards and 9 touchdowns.

With his shortened senior campaign, Johnson graduation with just 271 career rushes.

“Not at all,” Johnson said of maybe wanting to go elsewhere to be a feature back. “Me and Joe are (at the combine). Even with my injury I’m still being noted, being talked about. … It made us who we are. It made us be competitive. It made us be good, a certain thing that coach (Pete) Carroll wanted us to do. It helps us out because there’s no wear and tear on our bodies.”

The lack of an opportunity his freshman year, the injury his senior season and splitting carries the whole time left Johnson with lower career numbers than what Heisman trophy finalist Toby Gerhart and Heisman Trophy Winner Mark Ingram each had in only one season.
But as the NFL continues to trend away from teams having a single workhorse running back, Carroll’s system at USC may have prepared Johnson for taking advantage of the few carries he may see at the next level.

After the freak accident in September, Johnson’s future in the NFL was certainly unclear. And after a lot of long hours of work he is back on the field.

“It just shows how bad I love this game,” Johnson said of the struggle it took for him to come back from the injury. “And how much I want to get back and prove to everybody that injuries (are) not always the downfall, or is not always the end of what you want to do to reach your goals.”