The new Johnny Football? Oregon's Loyd moves from court to gridiron
EUGENE, Ore. -- Tony Sanchez rummaged around his office looking for an old DVD. No dice. On the other end of the phone, Oregon wide receivers coach Matt Lubick waited patiently.
"I can't find the video," Sanchez told Lubick. "But take my word for it -- he's unbelievable."
So what if Johnny Loyd hadn't run around on a football field since the fall of 2009, when he was a senior at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas? Oregon's receiving corps needed depth, and Sanchez, the head coach at Bishop Gorman, vouched for Loyd, who had just finished his basketball career as a point guard for the Ducks. Lubick was sold.
When Loyd first showed up at Oregon's spring practice two weeks ago, a few players wondered if this was for real. But then Loyd showed off some highlight-reel catches and turned heads with his acceleration. Bralon Addison, the Ducks leading returning receiver who made 61 catches for 890 yards with seven touchdowns last fall, tore his ACL earlier this month. Suddenly, this little experiment got a whole lot more interesting.
"Everyone feels bad for Bralon," Loyd said. "When that happened, the opportunity [for more playing time] presented itself to the rest of us ... For me, it's about, 'How fast can I get this football mindset back?'"
Oregon was already tasked with replacing standout wideout Josh Huff, who nabbed 62 passes for 1,140 yards with 12 touchdowns in 2013 as the Ducks went 11-2 and dominated Texas in the Alamo Bowl. His departure left a big hole in the Ducks' blur offense. Addison, a rising junior, appeared more than capable of stepping into the primary receiver role, but when reports surfaced that he had injured his knee on a non-contact drill, an already thin depth chart became markedly thinner. Second-year Oregon coach Mark Helfrich told reporters he couldn't confirm or deny Addison's knee injury -- the Ducks don't talk about injuries -- but Addison has been limping around campus on crutches, and teammates talked openly about moving forward without him.
A 5-foot-8, 163-pounder, Loyd was a star receiver and cornerback at Bishop Gorman. A stellar return man as well -- he took five punts back for touchdowns and averaged 32.6 yards per kick return -- Loyd led Bishop Gorman to the NIAA state title as a senior. He arrived at Oregon the same summer as wide receiver Keanon Lowe, and the two formed a fast friendship. Then, Lowe started to drop hints that he thought Loyd could help the football team.
"I'm not looking at John as just another [practice] body," Lowe said. "He's someone who can help us."
When the Ducks' run in the 2014 NCAA tournament concluded with an 85-77 loss to Wisconsin on March 22, Loyd's college hoops career came to a close. He decided he wasn't ready to leave Eugene quite yet.
"I wanted to suit up for the Ducks one last time. Not a lot of people can say the Oregon Ducks offered them a football scholarship, " said Loyd, who has already graduated with one degree in applied economics, is working on a second in psychology and will start a masters program in the fall, likely with a focus on non-profit organizations. Basketball is his first and true love, and he anticipates going back to hoops next winter to train and hopefully play professionally. Still, he joked that it's easier to be tackled than re-learn how to tackle, which means receiver made more sense than cornerback this spring, though coaches presented him with both options.
Loyd instantly impressed new teammates with his speed and hands. Lowe said that if he didn't play football for four years, it wouldn't be pretty the first time he stepped on the field again. But Loyd's transition has been mostly seamless. He hasn't been scared by the tempo -- if anything, he admits he thought the Ducks might go a little faster -- partially because Oregon basketball coach Dana Altman used to preach that his team should mimic the football program and pay attention to the organized chaos that has won the Ducks so many games on the gridiron.
"This kid is basically on year two of his career," Sanchez said. "He didn't come out and start playing until a month into the season his senior year [of high school] ... He has a lot of gifts. At this point you've got to believe that if he invests his time, he's going to be successful."
However, the Ducks will need help from plenty more than Loyd if they plan to stick around in college football's upper echelon. With Huff's graduation and Addison's injury, Oregon is in an unfamiliar position. As one local reporter pointed out, numbers for the program's top returning wideout (Lowe) are the lowest they've been since 1996.
Lowe, a 5-9, 186-pound rising senior, was already poised to become one of the top targets this fall. Lubick and teammates gush about his leadership and blocking ability, but his greatest asset this spring might be his ability to teach the finer points of the Ducks' offense to a bevy of young receivers who will have to find ways to contribute. Lubick says Lowe, who averaged 12.9 yards per catch last fall and totaled 18 receptions, is the Ducks' hardest worker. That's not hyperbole: Oregon players wear electronic monitoring systems that track workload, volume and intensity during practice, and Lowe routinely registers the highest numbers.
When asked who is best positioned to step in immediately, three names repeatedly come up: Rising sophomores Chance Allen and Dwayne Stanford and redshirt freshman Devon Allen. Stanford is somewhat unknown after missing last season because of knee surgery, but his size (6-5, 197 pounds) is alluring. Chance Allen played in nine games last year, catching five passes for 98 yards with one touchdown. Devon Allen hasn't seen the field yet, but he's known for his wheels; he doubles as a sprinter in the spring, practicing with the track team on football's off days.
"At the beginning, coach [Lubick] talked about making sure everybody knows all the plays and knows each position so they can jump in whenever," said Devon Allen, who has trimmed 15 pounds since arriving in Eugene, and will try to play at 185 this fall because it's easier to explode off the line and accelerate. "A lot of guys have played someone, but not like Josh or Bralon. We're a big blocking team on the outside, and with our run game so good with Byron [Marshall] and Thomas [Tyner], we have to be able to block to open the run, which then springs open the passing game. We all have to step up."
The Ducks were remarkably balanced last season. They ran the ball for 3,556 of their total 7,345 yards, a 48 percent clip. Quarterback Marcus Mariota, an early Heisman Trophy favorite, added a couple pounds of muscle this offseason and hopes to put on a few more before August. "With the amount of hits we take as quarterbacks in this offense, it would be nice to have a little cushion," Mariota said.
That means having a couple capable playmakers waiting downfield is exactly what the Ducks need ... and maybe one of those guys can be the Ducks' version of Johnny Football.
"Man, I've lost count of how many people have called me that," Loyd laughed.
Loyd isn't complaining, though -- the last person to boast that moniker turned in a pretty impressive college career. And now that the original Johnny Football is off to the NFL, a tough, speedy receiver in Eugene is happy to try to become the next player to live up to that nickname.