When the Ducks took the field against Ohio State at the Shoe 10 days ago, they were without their best player in Kayvon Thibodeaux. The Oregon staff was forced to get creative to fill the void and some may have been surprised to see DJ Johnson trot out for snaps at defensive end.
The Ducks rotated players heavily throughout the game, and Johnson, who spent all of 2020 playing tight end, was able to make plays on both sides of the ball. Most recently it was a crucial first down catch and run late in the game and a sack against one of the top offensive lines in the country that would seal Ohio State's fate on that historic Saturday.
But Johnson is no stranger to big plays.
Last year against USC, he had another critical catch on fourth down to keep a drive alive that would allow Oregon to take a commanding 14-point lead in the Pac-12 title game.
With conference play starting this week against Arizona, it's already shaping up to be a big year for the tight end/defensive end hybrid. After arriving in 2018 as a Miami transfer, it's clear now that Johnson is more than capable of contributing on both sides of the ball.
In today's era of college football it's incredibly rare to see a player that is capable of playing both ways. Names like Charles Woodson (Michigan), Champ Bailey (Georgia) and Jim Thorpe (Carlisle) come to mind as past players that played both ways effectively.
It's been quite a while since we've seen someone possess the ability to swap between sides of the ball so effectively. And that's what could make Johnson Oregon's x factor.
I'm not the first person to say this, as the Oregon staff is already in talks about how to best utilize his talents. After seeing snaps along the defensive line in each of the past two games, Defensive Coordinator Tim DeRuyter sees a larger role on defense for Johnson as the season ramps up.
"We're gonna continue to try and develop him not just as a third down player, but as an every-down player as an edge guy for us," he said. "I see his role on defense elevating as we go forward and we're just gonna have to negotiate how much time he's with us versus how much time he's on offense."
With Thibodeaux surely in his final season as a Duck, it's important that the staff build depth not only for this season, but looking down the road as well. While Johnson could declare for the NFL Draft after this year, he's only a junior, and the option for another season is on the table.
What does DeRuyter see in him that could help this defense? In part, it's a comfort with the position, and adding an element the defense lacks without their star player on the field.
"Early in his career he played defensive end and he's got some natural pass rush ability," DeRuyter told reporters on Monday. "He's got the size, the strength, the strike that we're looking for, can be a very physical player."
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What may also help pave the wave for an expanded role on defense is the play of Oregon's freshmen tight ends. Moliki Matavao and Terrance Ferguson have seen extensive playing time through three games and have quickly adjusted to the college game after enrolling early.
Stats through three games
Matavao: 3 receptions, 32 yds, 1 TD, long of 14, 1 reception/game, 10.7 yards per catch
Ferguson: 6 receptions, 53 yds, 1 TD, long of 15, 2 reception/game, 8.8 yards per catch
Those numbers may not blow you away, but Matavao's touchdown came against Ohio State, and helped the Ducks earn arguably the biggest win the program has seen in years. If the staff can trust these young players in a game like that, why not let them run the show moving forward?
If for whatever reason their play doesn't meet the staff's expectations, they could always bring Johnson back over for a game or two, not to mention Spencer Webb elevates the room with a veteran presence and great hands.
The Ducks have clearly established dependable depth on the offensive line, but the defensive line is lagging a bit behind where it needs to be to make a push into the postseason, and Cristobal always prioritizes winning in the trenches.
Maybe it's time for Johnson to make more of a full-time move back to defense.
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