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Originally published Tuesday, September 28, 2010 at 6:44 PM

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Huskies' James Johnson finally back from ankle injury

A key part of Washington's passing attack, James Johnson is finally ready to return for Saturday's game at USC, which should help bolster the Huskies' passing game.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Saturday

Washington @ USC, 5 p.m.

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James Johnson stood on the Husky Stadium sideline 10 days ago as Washington lost to Nebraska, frustration building with every pass that went awry.

"It hurts my heart as a competitor and teammate to see my guys out there battling and knowing that I can't do anything to help them," Johnson said.

That shouldn't be a problem Saturday as UW opens its Pac-10 schedule against USC at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Johnson, a sophomore receiver, is expected to return from a sprained ankle.

And when he does, he'll make UW's receiving corps whole for the first time this season.

Johnson was Washington's third-leading pass-catcher a year ago. His 39 receptions made him the perfect possession complement to Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar.

That trio's return had many calling UW's receivers possibly the best in the Pac-10 entering the season.

But without Johnson and tight end Kavario Middleton, the Huskies have been without two of their top four receivers from last season. Middleton, who was fourth with 26 catches in 2009, was kicked off the team over the summer for violating team rules.

Coach Steve Sarkisian this week didn't use their absence as an excuse for the disastrous offensive showing against Nebraska.

"Our passing game took a hit because we went up against a really good pass defense against Nebraska," he said.

But the loss of Johnson, in particular, is hard to ignore. Statistically no one else has filled the third-receiver spot Johnson did a year ago. Kearse (16) and Aguilar (13) are the only receivers with more than three catches.

One needs only to recall UW's game against USC a year ago to appreciate Johnson's value.

Many remember the two catches by Kearse that set up the Huskies' winning field goal. Before that, though, Johnson was UW's best receiver that day. He led all players with seven catches, making key receptions in three of four scoring drives.

"He made a lot of big plays for us last year," said quarterback Jake Locker, who was 4 for 20 against Nebraska as receivers struggled to get open.

Johnson showed up to camp weighing 203 pounds, 18 more than a year ago. He figured the added muscle would help him survive the pounding of a full season. He had 35 catches in UW's first eight games last year before wearing down in later games.

Johnson, whose only action this year was mop-up duty against Syracuse, thinks it will make a big difference.

"I'm much more physical at the line of scrimmage," he said. "They (defensive backs) look at me and think, 'Wow, this guy is pretty big. This is a big dude.' "

Bigger, yes, but Johnson heard his ankle pop on the first two-a-day practice of camp while blocking on a goal-line drill.

His first thought: "Maybe something is broken."

But X-rays showed that he had "really stretched ligaments," but he was told that a bad sprain sometimes can be worse than a break.

He was able to resume running straight ahead at full speed fairly quickly, but cutting proved troublesome. The week or two of recovery time that he hoped for came and went.

Said Sarkisian, "When you are playing receiver and you are limping and running and trying to get off bump-and-run coverage, it can be challenging."

Johnson pronounced himself at about 90 percent late last week, and has had good practices this week. He seems ready to return for a game he has had circled for some time. He grew up in a suburb of San Diego and says he'll have "a whole bunch of family members," attending the game.

"I'm really excited to go back home," he said.

Notes

Everrette Thompson is taking some reps at defensive tackle with Cameron Elisara shifted out to end as the Huskies attempt to come up with a stable lineup on the defensive front. Thompson was primarily a tackle last year. Elisara has been primarily a tackle throughout his career but spent a lot of the spring at end.

• In preparation for the atmosphere that awaits Saturday, the loudspeakers blared "Tribute to Troy" for the entire two hours of practice — as was also the case Monday. That's the song the USC media guide calls "the incessant stanza of pounding drums and blaring horns (that) is played after every defensive stop."

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com.

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