Week after week, a new name steps up to fill the injury gaps for the Ducks.
Oregon’s injury bug bit big names as early as the summer practices when freshman wide receiver Mycah Pittman went down with a shoulder injury. The flock has not been healthy since, with seemingly a new injury or a flare-up occurring every week, to the point where a couple of young players have yet to make their debuts.
Aside from Gus Cumberland‘s season-ending injury and Troy Dye’s one-game absence, the offense has been plagued with most of the injuries this season, with Justin Herbert virtually having new targets every week. This Oregon team has been able to adapt, with some former role players becoming playmakers.
Here are some reasons that Oregon is still clicking week in and week out, despite the injuries.
Caught in a Spider Webb
“An underrated performer who has been lost in the shuffle” is a good description of Spencer Webb. From his score in the season opener against Auburn, where he did his best Allen Iverson step-over impression, to his touchdown last weekend against Arizona, Webb continues to improve. At this point he looks like he could play a pivotal role in Oregon’s offense for the remainder of this season and for years ahead.
The 6’6″, 246-pound redshirt freshman from Sacramento has been mostly used as a utility receiver: his role has changed week to week and he has essentially played where he is needed. He began the season as a tight end, but had some repetitions at wide receiver when Juwan Johnson’s injury was lingering longer than expected. Webb’s willingness to transition to wide receiver and play where he is needed is a big reason that Oregon has had continued success while battling injuries.
Webb has 16 receptions in 10 games, with three touchdowns, not to be overshadowed by his third-down production and catching any ball that comes into his window. He is proving to be a solid bail-out for Herbert on passing downs.
Herbert’s favorite target last year was Dillon Mitchell. This year, it seemed to be Juwan Johnson in the spring, then as the season started it was tight end Jacob Breeland. After Breeland went out for the season with a knee injury and Juwan was still being integrated into the Ducks’ offense, another Johnson, Johnny Johnson III, became a consistent target for Herbert.
Johnson III has recorded a reception in all but one game this season, making his tally 35 on the season alongside three touchdowns, including an electrifying 73-yard touchdown to open the game against Arizona. The junior from Chandler, Arizona has recorded at least four receptions in a game five times this season, and has caught over 75 yards on four different occasions this year as well.
With Pittman going down with an arm injury and out for the foreseeable future, Johnson III’s role is going to increase yet again, alongside the other Johnson.
Speaking of Juwan, his breakout performance against the Trojans was a breath of fresh air for Ducks fans. The tall, 6’4″ wideout had a lot of hype and anticipation coming into the season, and Oregon might have finally found their deep threat.
After the injury to Breeland, the passing game was in a state of flux. Johnson had been a non-factor all year until he made arguably the biggest play of Oregon’s season with a 24-yard reception on the final drive of the Washington State game to put Oregon in field goal range, where Camden Lewis then kicked the game-winner. Since his return, Juwan has filled the gap left by Breeland nicely with 299 yards and four touchdowns in as many games.
Coming down the stretch in pursuit of a Pac-12 championship and a spot in the College Football Playoff, get used to hearing “caught by Johnson.”
Running Back by Committee
Coach Mario Cristobal has preached all year that there technically isn’t a starting running back; they’re going to give the ball to whoever is hot. We have seen games where every running back has been involved and taken almost equal reps.
Throughout the year, the running backs have faced some adversity due to injury. CJ Verdell has been battling an ankle injury for what seems like most of the season. Travis Dye has also been banged up on a few occasions, most recently a head injury against Wazzu, though he was back the following week.
Each running back has been able to pick up the slack and fill the void in a way that makes them feed off each other. All four have had shining moments, with Verdell running all over Wazzu, Dye’s all-around solid performance against the Trojans, Cyrus Habibi-Likio being a presence in goal-line and short-yard situations, and lastly Darrian Felix has ripped off some big runs this year too.
As much as the players have stepped up every week and risen to each occasion, what’s maybe being lost in all of this is how well Cristobal prepares his team week in and week out. As previously stated, seemingly every week, there is a new injury to a player who has been an instrumental part of the system. Cristobal manages to adapt his strategy, put together a depth chart and run with it.
In his on-field, post-game interview after the win over Arizona, Cristobal said, “These guys fought for me.” Any team with the number of injuries the Ducks have faced could have a coach in over his head. But what Cristobal said is the difference. The players fought for him and he is now fighting for his players, putting together the best prepared and put together team that he can week after week. Between that recognition and next-man-up mentality, injuries have not managed to ruin a promising season.
Eugene, Oregon Top Photo by Craig Strobeck
Bob Rodes, the FishDuck.com Volunteer editor for this article, is an IT analyst, software developer and amateur classical pianist in Manchester, Tennessee
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