LOS ANGELES — You wouldn’t know it by his body language after the game, but Juwan Johnson has arrived.
Long after the USC faithful had filed out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night, Johnson was one of the last Ducks to greet a sea of fans dressed in green and yellow before heading through the tunnel. After Troy Dye had jumped into the stands to greet supporters. After Jaylon Redd gave a young kid his game-used towel. And after Thomas Graham Jr. posed for pictures. Johnson, arguably the biggest performer of the night, quietly jogged over to the fans, thanked them for their support, and headed towards the tunnel.
In a way, his demeanor mirrored that of the night of Aug. 31 in Texas, when he was dressed in street clothes watching his new teammates warm up for the season opener against Auburn. Only this time, he had just caught three touchdown passes in a statement win for the Oregon program.
“I don’t speak as much as I would like to, but I can lead by example,” Johnson said. “Staying after practice catching balls, working harder. Just doing what I can.”
When he went down with an injury that robbed him of half of his season, he stayed steady. He worked to get back and prepared to make an impact for the No. 7 team in the nation. And when that impact came on Saturday night, he again stayed steady, because he knows the season’s not over.
“It’s been tough, it’s been adventurous, but it’s been awesome,” Johnson said of his season. “All I can do is smile at the end of the day. I can never be mad at the process.”
The process on Saturday night happened quickly — all three of Johnson’s scores came within a 13-minute stretch in the second half.
He caught a slant over the middle for his first score as a Duck. Six minutes later, he plucked a back-shoulder fade from Justin Herbert out of the air for touchdown No. 2. Seven minutes after that, he was in the end zone again after a 37-yard catch-and-run.
Next thing you knew, the Ducks were up by 31 and Johnson had eclipsed his career total in touchdowns on three drives. If you blinked, you might’ve missed it.
“I don’t know if Oregon has had a receiver like him in quite a while,” Herbert said. “The way he runs and moves as a 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 guy, it’s something special.”
And Herbert is right. You’d have to go back to Darren Carrington to find an Oregon receiver with his combination of height and speed, and with Jacob Breeland out for the season, Johnson’s emergence as a big-bodied red-zone threat is crucial for a team that suddenly finds itself in the thick of the College Football Playoff conversation.
“There’s a quote that Tony Dungy has, and it says ‘a team is gonna be really good if it has leadership.’ And that’s what I feel like our team has,” Johnson said. “Guys like La’Mar Winston, Troy Dye, Justin. I even try to put myself in there.”
He’s not loud. He’s not fiery. He may not even be what the prototypical leader looks and sounds like. But he’s arrived, and he doesn’t need to say anything for people to realize it.