D.J.'s back, and maybe not just for this year

With a healthy knee at last, D.J. Morgan looks to the future . . . and maybe a sixth year at USC.

He's all grown up now, D.J Morgan is.

It happens . . . after five years.

But it doesn't always jump out at you the way it did Sunday after the USC-UCLA dual track meet when you get the chance to visit with a young man whose Trojan career will always have one of those "if only" footnotes.

"If only" he hadn't had to have those five knee surgeries.

"If only" he'd been able to become the football player we all thought the world's best junior hurdler could become after running the fifth-best time ever in the 110-meter high hurdles. After all, he'd dominated LA high school track circles winning the 100 meters and both hurdles events.

The only question, it seemed, was whether it'd be the Olympics or the NFL for D.J.

And now, could it be, after five long years as he prepares to graduate next week with his degree in Public Policy, Management and Planning, he's finally moving in that direction?

Based on the hugs and backslaps and congratuations from teammates, coaches and some of his football teammates after the points he scored in two events against the Bruins, the points without which USC would not have scored an 82-81 win, it looks like maybe it is.

"I'm finally healthy," D.J. says, after finishing a close second with an impressive 13.84 (wind-aided) time in the 110 high hurdles to move into the NCAA top 30. Then he jumped into the 300 meter intermediate hurdles, a race he hadn't run in seven years, and scored that all-important point with a diving finish for third against a disqualified Bruin.

"I'm finally that same athlete today USC recruited me to be," he says.

Although he's not the same young man. As we said, he's all grown up. For athletes we get to see continuously for their entire careers, it's not so obvious, the gradual changes. But we missed D.J. in 2013 and 2014 when he was recovering from more knee surgeries.

There was a second ACL and the need to take a patellar tendon from the other knee, requiring rehab on both knees. And there had already been a couple of cleanout surgeries in between. By the time D.J. showed up for camp last fall with the new coaches, it was right at the minimum nine-month rehab mark.

"Not enough time," D.J. says. "That's why I went to safety." He just wanted to play. But he couldn't.

It just wasn't there. "So I decided to sit out." But he didn't "retire," he said. "That was misconstrued."

After all, he'd worked so hard at football coming into USC off that first ACL surgery. Too hard, maybe. He wanted it so badly. But there were moments when it seemed to pay off.

He was the first freshman in four years to start a game for USC at tailback in 2011 against Minnesota, gaining 77 yards in 18 carries. The year before as he recovered from his first knee surgery in high school, he was named USC's Offensive Service Team player of the Year.

That 2011 season, he played in 10 games, carried the ball 42 times for 163 yards, third-best for the Trojans. But the knee was never really right. The next year, D.J. played in seven games with 41 carries for 201 yards and caught a 24-yard TD pass.

But then the two knee surgeries in nine months caught up with him. "I needed to take the time off." He did come back for Pro Day two months ago and felt it coming back.

"I got some looks," he said of the pro scouts there, "but I didn't reach out to them." It's nothing but track right now.

But it's coming back so fast, D.J. says he's hoping to keep the improving going through the Pac-12 and NCAA championships. "I can get below 13.8," he says in the 110, "and get to be an All-American and . . . "

And then, "I might apply for a sixth year," he says of the way this is working out. "I'll have to do it this week."

At 185 pounds and with experience at running back, wide receiver, return man and safety, an athlete with D.J.'s speed would be welcome anywhere. And he's not closing the door to football.

"I'd like to work on my master's," he says. "And right now, it would be track. Resting from football and going back to my old way of training has gotten me back to where I am. Track has been really helping me."

But it's not set in stone. "I could probably do both," D.J. says, "although I haven't talked to them [the football coaches] about it. And Coach [Caryl Smith] Gilbert has been so great to work with."

Then there's this, something that's been in his mind since winning that World Junior championship back in 2008.

"The Olympics are coming up in 2016," D.J. says. "I'm just going to let the rest of the year play out and see how it goes."

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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