ARLINGTON, Texas — Johnny Johnson III needed to step up.
Oregon’s wide receiver corps was the target of slander last season as it became a liability for Justin Herbert. Their biggest issue was the players’ ability to hang on to the ball.
But that was last year.
Following the 2018 season, Johnson would catch 250 balls on the Jugs machine every day regardless of what he was doing that day. He also worked with Herbert and Tyler Shough to improve his connection with the quarterbacks.
All of the offseason work paid off for Johnson in Oregon’s season opener against Auburn. Despite the No. 11 Ducks’ 27-21 gut-wrenching loss to the No. 16 Tigers, Johnson set a career-high in receiving yards (98) and receptions (7).
“He’s done a great job,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “He’s a hard worker, tremendous work ethic, lots of pride and he’s a craftsman. He’s done a great job just having a great offseason and it spilled over to a nice performance.”
Johnson got a chance to show the nation what work he has been putting in all offseason. Johnson, on the opening drive, was able to break loose from a speedy Auburn secondary to be on the receiving end of a 47-yard pass from Herbert. That completion was Johnson's longest since his 51-yard catch against Nebraska in 2017.
The long reception set Oregon up to score the first points of the game with a one-yard rush by CJ Verdell.
Despite many knowing Johnson for his unreliable hands, Herbert knew what was going to be on display when they played against the Tigers.
“That’s something I knew going into this year was going to be huge,” Herbert said. “He was on the Jugs machine asking to do extra work. It doesn’t surprise me at all.”
With Juwan Johnson, Brenden Schooler, Mycah Pittman, JR Waters and Lance Wilhoite all out due to injury at the wide receiver position, it was the next man up for Oregon.
“Our mindset is basically we’re going to do this for our brothers, regardless of who’s on the field,” Johnson said. “Everybody has to perform to the same standard regardless of who’s in the game.”
Along with Johnson, Jaylon Redd was another receiver who stepped up for Oregon. Redd finished the game with nine receptions for 64 yards.
Johnson’s impact following the first drive wasn’t felt until the third quarter; Oregon’s offense had stalled following an explosive first quarter. Herbert found Johnson for a 20-yard reception to begin generating offense. Johnson, later in the same drive, caught a 13-yard pass that put Oregon on the Auburn 6-yard line. He was able to have two of the biggest plays of that drive, which led to a Darrian Felix touchdown to put the Ducks up 21-6 in the third quarter.
“It’s a great feeling, it’s fun out there,” Johnson said of playing in front of a national audience. “I wanted to show the world what I can do out there. I’m just working as hard as I can for my brothers to get the win.”
Despite Johnson’s performance, the offense stalled.
Oregon, following the score by Felix, surrendered 21 straight unanswered points that led to its demise. The offense seemed to become conservative in the second half following an explosive first half, and Oregon suffered a crucial loss.
“Stats are going to come, those come with the preparation,” Johnson said. “I always plan to have a big game this season, but the win is more important than anything. I’m upset about losing.”
Follow Gabriel on Twitter @gabe_ornelas