With 14 seconds remaining in Oregon’s week two matchup with Ohio State, Buckeyes quarterback CJ Stroud dropped back five steps to his own 10-yard line. Down by 7, it was the Buckeyes’ last chance to escape a significant upset.
Stroud rolled out to his right to avoid the collapsing pocket, but not for long. DJ Johnson, a converted tight end playing defensive line at the time, pushed his man off to the side and wrapped his arms around Stroud’s waist and to the ground.
In one of college football’s most electrifying environments, Johnson stepped up big. He hadn’t played in-game snaps along the defensive line in two seasons. But early-season injuries to Kayvon Thibodeaux and Mase Funa were enough to call Johnson’s name.
Since Oregon’s Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin in 2020, Johnson has played tight end for the Ducks –– despite playing predominantly defensive end his entire life.
The transition was seamless.
Johnson was one of Oregon’s most lethal weapons in the shortened 2020 season, reeling in three touchdowns and 11.3 yards per touch. With his bulky frame and long reach, he shifted from a platoon defensive lineman to one of Oregon’s most dependable red-zone targets in under a year.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” Johnson's high school coach John Heffernan said when asked about the position change. “Coaches make him go out there and do something that he hasn’t done in a while — it’s just the kind of teammate he is.”
Johnson was a Swiss Army knife at Luther Bank High School in Sacramento, California. He lined up as a receiver and hauled in 17 receptions for 255 yards and two touchdowns over his three-year varsity career. He even got a snap at running back, which he took 42 yards to the end zone.
“Sometimes we’d let him line up on offense on smaller guys,” Heffernan said. “It doesn’t matter what you told him to do because he’d do it.”
For all the success Johnson had on the offensive side of the ball, his home was still the defensive line. He racked up 225 tackles, 38.5 sacks and forced 12 fumbles in his high school career. The Titans went 24-13 over the four-year period.
Not only did Johnson float around the offensive side of the ball, but he did the same on the defensive side. Heffernan ran multiple defensive schemes at Luther Bank, forcing Johnson into a multitude of tasks like spying on the quarterback and playing off the ball in zone coverage.
Every job that Johnson was asked to do, he did with ease, which reflects his work ethic off the field as well.
“He’s very selfless and quiet,” Heffernan said. “He didn’t say a whole lot, but he went out there, did his business and led by example with everything he did.”
Since Johnson transferred to Oregon from the University of Miami, he has exclusively played either tight end or defensive end. The first game in which he did both was against the Buckeyes, where he had a big 11-yard conversion to go along with his game-ending sack.
“It felt great,” Johnson said, reflecting on his role during the Ohio State game. “But it was a better team win, and we are looking to Stony Brook now.”
In the Ducks’ 48-7 win over Stony Brook, Johnson, for the second week in a row, saw time at both the defensive line and tight end.
Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has aired his confidence in Johnson. He said he doesn’t feel like he needs to give Johnson help because of his understanding of the team’s schemes and his recognition of what the other team is trying to accomplish.
With the defensive line still relatively bruised up and a young tight end core, Johnson will likely see snaps at both positions moving forward. It’s a challenge that he embraces as the Ducks are preparing for a run at defending their Pac-12 crown –– and potentially more.
“Whatever the team needs is wherever I’ll be,” Johnson said. “Just be ready to get in.”