In the early portion of the 2019 season, the majority of the questions surrounding the Ducks have been wide-receiver related. Through three games, guys have stepped up and questions have been answered.
“It’s exciting,” Johnny Johnson III said. “I’m happy for these young dudes. They’re showing the world that they can do everything we ask them to do. I’m just proud.”
Twelve Ducks caught passes Saturday night at Autzen Stadium against Montana, including four freshmen. Last week against Nevada, 14 Oregon receivers hauled in a pass. For a group that faced overwhelming skepticism before the season, performances like that of the past two weeks have been very impressive.
Beyond the sheer volume of pass catchers, it’s important to keep in mind that the Ducks are still without expected contributors Juwan Johnson, Brenden Schooler and Mycah Pittman. In the seeming absence of a go-to target for Justin Herbert, junior Johnny Johnson III has stepped up in a big way.
“It’s just being accountable,” Johnson III said of his new role as the primary option. “Knowing you have to do all the things right and showing the way for the younger dudes. Always being on top of your stuff.”
Johnson was plagued by drops and inconsistency in 2018, but his improvement this season has been arguably the biggest offensive storyline thus far. He caught eight passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday, and has already gone over 200 yards on the season after gaining just 215 all of last year.
“Johnny’s not gonna be out-worked. He’s not,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “Lot of pride in him. Really wanted to make this a strong showing to start off the year right, and he also wanted to make sure his teammates were playing really well."
Another big-time contributor in the passing game through non-conference play has been tight end Jacob Breeland.
His two touchdown receptions on Saturday matched his season total from 2018, and his five receptions set a new career high. In the absence of Cam McCormick, Breeland has filled the void at the tight-end spot.
“Breeland certainly has stepped up his game,” Cristobal said. “He’s 250 pounds now. His run blocking has really improved. He’s become such a sure-handed guy and become a legitimate vertical threat. It’s great to have that.”
After struggling for much of the 2018 non-conference slate, Herbert has been locked in throughout the early portion of the 2019 campaign.
He became the first quarterback in program history to throw for five touchdowns in back-to-back games, and has now strung together two straight 300-yard performances after not doing so at all in the previous 10. His completion percentage has been above 70% in all three games.
“It’s just growth,” Herbert said. “Having another year with this offense and having some guys step up, some receivers that are able to make plays, it makes my job a lot easier.”
With Johnson III and Breeland established as go-to targets, unexpected depth up and down the depth chart and the impending return of Pittman, Johnson and Schooler, the Ducks passing game appears to be just fine.