After a tumultuous, injury-plagued start to the season, Juwan Johnson finally got his chance to shine. With 26 seconds left and the Ducks facing a one-point deficit, quarterback Justin Herbert looked his way.
Johnson caught a screen pass near the Cougars’ 33-yard line and quickly turned it upfield. Following a series of crucial blocks from the offensive line and his fellow receivers, Johnson flashed his speed as he accelerated toward the end zone, before finally getting dragged down near the 5-yard line to set up Camden Lewis’ game-winning field goal.
“It was rewarding,” Johnson said. “Knowing that [Herbert] had trusted me, I was just trying to be a guy that helped him out…It was more rewarding here because of how much I’ve been through.”
When the former Penn State transfer came to Eugene last spring, he brought immense expectations with him, matching his 6-foot-4-inch frame. He impressed throughout camp and was soon being talked up as a potential go-to target for Herbert, an aspect the team seemed to lack after the NFL departure of Dillon Mitchell.
When the season rolled around, however, doubt set in as Johnson began to battle a soft-tissue calf injury. He went on to miss the team’s first four games.
Meanwhile, fellow receivers Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson III took over. With Jacob Breeland’s breakout season and Mycah Pittman’s instant impact, Juwan Johnson was all but forgotten.
Even when Johnson did return to the field, he didn’t look like himself. He recorded just two catches for 36 yards over his first three games. He looked slow, lacked separation and, when given opportunities to make contested catches, he couldn’t come down with them.
On Saturday, Johnson looked healthy for the first time all season. He recorded a team-high four catches for 64 yards, two of which came on Oregon’s final drive.
“It’s been a long road,” he said. “That's a testament to [my teammates]. It’s been tough, real tough, sitting and waiting and missing the Auburn game and then three or four more games, whatever the case may have been. But I’m glad that [my coaches] stuck with me and really motivated me to be the person I am right now.”
Johnson still has a ways to go if he hopes to solidify a spot in Oregon’s suddenly deep receiving corps. However, his size and frame are assets — something lacking in the rest of the receiver room.
“The last week and a half, but particularly this week, [Johnson’s] been practicing really, really well,” head coach Mario Cristobal said. “Looks strong, really catching the ball. Just snatching it out of the air, running really good routes, playing with toughness.”
Not only could he prove to be valuable down the field and in the red zone, as he continues to get healthier each week, but Johnson’s size comes in handy in the run game. This was on display Saturday as he had key blocks, which helped CJ Verdell rush for over 250 yards.
“You saw the physical blocking today,” Cristobal said. “Really proud of the way he played tonight, certainly looking for more production from him.”
As much as it hurts to miss such a large chunk of his final collegiate season, Johnson still has plenty of time to make his presence felt. That starts this weekend as the Ducks head to Southern California to take on talent-rich USC in another big road test.