The key to Oregon’s season is to keep Marcus Mariota healthy, and that became an even bigger challenge today as reports surfaced that left tackle Tyler Johnstone reinjured his right knee in practice last week. The junior is out for the year and faces another long rehab.
Johnstone plays the most important position in the protection scheme, covering Mariota’s blind side. He was a two-year starter and an All-America candidate, a nimble blocker with great technique. He’d worked hard on the rehab and bulked up to 289 pounds. There’s no way to gloss this over: this is a big loss.
Johnstone was vital to the Ducks too as a spokesman and a leader, a clever, funny guy who kept other players loose. He’ll be off to the side now and diminished in that role. Roommate Andre Yruretagoyena is the most likely to take over on the blind side, a redshirt junior, 6-5, 290, a career backup who has played in 11 games over two seasons.
The challenge for Andre Y is confidence. Every week he will face the quickest, most athletic rusher on the defense, players like Shalique Calhoun of Michigan State and UCLA’s Eddie Vanderdoes.
There are some talented linemen behind him. True freshman Tyrell Crosby has looked good in the early practice reports, and Cameron Hunt, Jake Pisarcik, Haneteli Lousi and Evan Voeller will all be cross-trained for the position. Steve Greatwood likes to see that his linemen are prepared for all five positions on the front, something that improves depth for the long grind of the season.
The Ducks still return four starters from last year, and the backups got a lot of snaps in most of Oregon’s games over the past two campaigns.
But losing a popular, experienced player like Johnstone is the first serious challenge in a year of sky-high hopes. It brings back memories of Chip Kelly’s first year as head coach, when quarterback Nate Costa went down in fall camp and cornerback Walter Thurmond was lost for the year in game three.