When asked about graduate transfer wide receiver Juwan Johnson, his new Oregon Duck teammates can’t help but smile.
Senior offensive lineman Shane Lemieux named Johnson the scariest big play threat for next season. “He’s a big guy, who has caught some really good balls with a big body… We haven’t had someone like that in awhile.”
6-foot-4, 230-pound Johnson is stepping into a prime opportunity at Oregon and he’s already climbing the depth chart. He could be the answer to the biggest question of the 2019 football season: How can the Ducks get the most out of quarterback Justin Herbert in his final season at UO?
After arriving from Penn State, Johnson has made a strong first impression on the Ducks. His large, powerful, physical frame is unlike the other receivers currently on Oregon’s roster along with his ability to power through and over defensive backs.
Offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo’s first thought when seeing Johnson in pads at Oregon? “Wow, he was as big as I remember, bigger even in pads.”
“The thing about Juwan is how engaged he’s been,” Arroyo, who is already planning to have Johnson play multiple positions, said. “He didn’t come out as a guy who’s played a ton – which he has, he’s played a lot, he’s been in a big-time program and been in big-time games – he’s been very humble and his work ethic and the way he’s been, come early and stay late, that’s really good to see. I think that’s good for our young guys to see too.”
After only four practices, Johnson went from being a new roster addition to working with the first-team offense. During Thursday’s practice, Johnson replaced Johnny Johnson III (unknown injury) in a two receiver, two tight end package alongside wide receiver Brenden Schooler and tight ends Ryan Bay and Cam McCormick.
You may have just learned Johnson’s name this month but he has been on coach Mario Cristobal’s radar since Cristobal's coaching stint at Alabama. As Johnson grew up in in Glassboro, New Jersey, his childhood dream was to play for Oregon. From across the country he was in awe the Oregon brand, LaMichael James, Josh Huff and De’Anthony Thomas. Huff is his favorite Duck receiver, Johnson followed Huff’s career when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles for three seasons.
“My mom, at the time, was like, ‘No, that’s too far,’” Johnson said when discussing a possible future at Oregon. “Now I’m sort of a man on my own and paving my way, writing my own story. So I came out here and wanted to live out my childhood dream and play for Oregon.”
The newcomer is studying the Oregon playbook and putting work into connecting with quarterback Justin Herbert, on and off the field. The two Ducks bonded over an ‘Oheroes’ volunteer event last week, where they coached middle-schoolers.
“It’s exciting,” Johnson said of catching passes from Herbert. “He sees the field. He knows what he’s doing… We are building a relationship. I’m trying to feel him out and he’s trying to feel me out.”
Herbert is already on 2019 Heisman Trophy watch lists and, with Dillon Mitchell’s NFL departure, needs someone reliable to throw to. Letting catchable balls hit the turf was one of the main problems for Oregon’s receivers in 2018, something new wide receivers coach Jovon Bouknight will be tasked with fixing.
[READ: First Herbert, then Ionescu: The time for Oregon Duck titles is now]
Johnson is coming off a season that was plagued with his own dropped passes, something he owned up to when asked about. Bouknight has implemented a new tactic to eliminate bad habits: when a player drops a ball, they also have to drop and do 10 pushups.
Johnson’s size isn’t his only asset. He brings needed experience to the position: playing in 16 more games than the Ducks’ most veteran wide receiver, Schooler (21 games). He’s proved he can put up big numbers and play in big games; in 2017, he caught 54 passes for 701 yards and averaged 13 yards per reception. His spectacular sophomore season included a game-winning touchdown catch on fourth down as time expired at Iowa.
Johnson’s 81 receptions over his three seasons include 57 that resulted in a first down (70 percent).
"I’m here to be a leader," he said. "That’s my job here, come in and bring a leader and bring that energy to the team. I want to bring the guys up so we can win a Pac-12 championship, national championship and those sort of things."
Five Ducks on the roster have the last name Johnson, and as Juwan says, he’s still searching for his Oregon identity and nickname. Come August, could the fresh face become an Oregon household name? Will he separate himself from the other playmakers? The fight for playing time is on.