DJ Johnson, QB questions, and takeaways from Oregon’s 2022 spring game
The Dan Lanning era at Oregon is up and running. Saturday, we got our first in-depth look at what Lanning’s Ducks will be all about.
Pads were popping as the Ducks were (sans the quarterbacks) live and tackling to the ground. A handful of guys stood out in a major way. The Oregon quarterbacks showed some good signs. A handful of mistakes were made. Here are some thoughts, a few notes, and some takeaways from the day’s action.
DJ Johnson supremacy
Welcome to DJ Johnson’s world. We are but humble visitors passing through.
Prior to Lanning’s arrival, the sixth-year senior was a jack-of-all-trades kind of player for the Ducks, a guy who could play both sides of the ball in a pinch but didn’t really have a verifiable role upon which to grow from. That has changed in a major way under this new coaching staff, and Johnson showed off the byproduct on Saturday.
He was everywhere all of the time. He was the main event.
Johnson had a speed rush off the line from a 5-technique where he smoked the guy lined up across from him at tackle and poked the ball out of quarterback Jay Butterfield’s hand as he ran by. Had this been a real game and Johnson been rushing for real, someone would be feeling a good deal of soreness in their midsection tomorrow. Johnson had nice plays in backside pursuit to bring down ball-carriers.
Simply put: he imposed his will.
Listed now as an outside linebacker, he finished with seven tackles, five tackles for a loss, and four “sacks.” In a sense, a number of the sacks on Saturday were rather fake.
You could sense a bit of frustration from quarterback Bo Nix on a handful of occasions where he climbed in the pocket and then looked to escape to the edge, but an outstretched arm simply touching him caused the play to be blown dead. Sack for the defense in this context, but in a real game Nix would have been free to the outside to make a play.
Johnson’s “sacks,” however, were mostly plays that would have ended in quarterback takedowns during a real game.
“I think DJ can be one of the best players in the conference,” Lanning said after the game. “I see him develop every single day, day in and day out. One of the best players in the nation if he continues to push himself to the level he’s capable of. I’m excited to see what he did today, but he has that growth mindset. He’s gotta go say, ‘OK, what can I do better? How can I improve from where I’m at and not be satisfied?’ Which I think DJ will do.”
Sometimes players show out in a spring game and the hype train gets rolling and then the season rolls around and things change.
This does not feel like one of those times. Johnson looks like he has a chance to be a legitimate force. For a defense that already has guys like Noah Sewell and Brandon Dorlus, that’s a nasty thought.
Tosh Lupoi’s touch
This defense is going to bring it and bring it and bring it and bri-
You get the point. The Ducks brought pressure all day long.
For an offensive line that had expected first-team guys split up between both the Yellow and Green teams, it was an uneven day. (Because of the nature of the roster split that’s probably not all that representative of what we’ll see from the group in-season.) The Oregon front seven, after getting knocked back a bit by some explosives to start the day, settled into a groove over the back half of the game and won more often than not.
Defensive end Bradyn Swinson had some nice moments. Outside linebacker Jaden Naverrette had some nice moments as well. Treven Ma’ae had a bull-rush move in the red zone that nearly decleated the offensive lineman who tried to block him. Sam Taimani looks like he’ll be a force.
So much of the talk this spring was about Lanning’s simulated pressure tendencies, but to be a good simulated pressure team you have to be a willing pressure team. It appears as if Oregon will be that. They’ve got some guys who can win one-on-ones. The teams they fielded on Saturday were missing some guys who could be major havoc-creators in their own right.
Lanning and defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi have lots of pieces to work with.
“I don’t know if I’ve been around a defensive coordinator who emphasizes takeaways as much as Tosh Lupoi, and our defensive staff does a phenomenal job,” Lanning said.
Takeaways and explosives, those are the key areas that will constantly be emphasized by Lanning and his coaching staff. Defensively, if you can constantly create pressure, constantly make the opposing quarterback uncomfortable, you’re going to put yourself in a position to take the football away.
Yes, there were 52 combined points scored in the game and the secondary was caught out on a few occasions, but some of that had to do with not being able to hit the quarterback. Even still, Oregon intercepted four passes and recovered another fumble on the day.
Unsettled QB competition?
Bo Nix finished his day 8-for-15 for 230 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception.
Ty Thompson was 12-for-27 for 168 yards, one score, and two interceptions.
Jay Butterfield was 16-for-26 for 215, one score, and one interception.
Nix, the Auburn transfer with three years starting experience, looked strong and in-command and how you expect a starter to look, but he also had the worst interception of the day. He forced a ball into a pocket occupied by three Oregon defenders and missed his guy.
Thompson, the redshirt freshman with the recruiting pedigree but very little experience, made some nice throws, but had two turnovers. The first was a bit of a weird play; the throw was well behind his receiver coming across the middle of the field, but his receiver just sort of stuck one arm out and deflected the ball right into the defensive back’s awaiting arms. The second interception came late in the fourth quarter while the Green team was trying to close a 31-21 deficit. That one was a bad decision and a forced ball.
Butterfield, the guy who is typically viewed as the third guy in a two-man quarterback race, had an interception that wasn’t his fault and the best throw of the day. Late in the third quarter, Butterfield uncorked a deep shot toward wideout Troy Franklin in the back of the end zone. Franklin had two guys hanging on his hips, but Butterfield put it in the exact perfect spot needed to make the throw—ahead of his man enough so as to avoid danger, but still well within reach for Franklin to reel in the catch and get a foot down. Franklin just couldn’t control the ball through the ground.
From a physical standpoint, Nix and Thompson look how you expect Power Five quarterbacks at this level to look. Butterfield has a different build, but then he lasers a pass downfield and you’re left questioning, “That arm? On that frame? Woah.”
I’d wager he’s very much a player in the quarterback competition.
That competition is likely still raging after the spring. Did either Thompson or Nix show enough to truly separate? Lanning probably isn’t going to decide this competition off one of 15 spring practices.
Thompson’s sub-50% completion rate and two picks look a little rough in the box score, but he made some nice throws once he settled in. To go with a younger player is to accept there will be growing pains.
Nix hit throws he should hit and showcased a poise that only comes with the kind of bank or reps he has. The interception was just a poor throw.
“It was alright,” he said when asked to assess his play. “Obviously as a quarterback you want to be explosive and score touchdowns, and we did that, but at the same time we want to be consistent, have a great completion percentage. Today was a little weird.”
Lanning liked that his quarterbacks came out looking to push the ball downfield, but he felt they put the ball in jeopardy one too many times.
“I think Yellow early on would have ran away with the game if they hadn’t turned the ball over a couple times,” Lanning said. “They kept it close because of that. Some big takeaways by the Green D.”
Nix was the Yellow team quarterback, Thompson the Green team quarterback. Butterfield rotated back and forth between the two.
Other notes and random thoughts:
>> Clearly this is going to be an offense that is going to try and push the football downfield. The first play of the game was a 70-yard bomb from Nix to wideout Seven McGee on a deep crosser.
“Like everyone showed today, when you get the ball out to the guys we have, we can be explosive. That’s my job,” Nix said. “I think the offense can be extremely explosive. … I think everyone kind of got a taste for how it could be.”
Added Lanning: “Explosive plays and takeaways are the two main determining factors of wins and losses. I certainly don’t think we’re there yet and we’ve got a ways to go, but we saw some steps in the right direction.”
>> In the search for more explosives, Oregon has a handful of receivers who could each make a bunch of splash plays this fall. McGee looks like a baller. Chase Cota, the UCLA transfer, is going to be a red zone weapon for the Ducks. His length and ability to go up and snag balls is going to be very useful. McGee finished with six catches for 116 yards and a score. Cota finished with 100 yards on six catches.
>> In my notes, I have the word “trickeration” written in all caps. Oregon tried to run a double pass from Ty Thompson to wideout Kris Hutson twice. Neither worked, with the second attempt going for a loss. The first attempt ended in an incompletion as Hutson’s throw led his intended receiver just out of bounds, but he had his legs taken out from under him as he was throwing—and really didn’t have much time at all once catching Thompson’s pass—and yet was still able to deliver a fairly well-thrown ball downfield. Maybe not that specific design, but file that kind of play away; Hutson could be a guy who makes some surprise throws.
>> Did I mention DJ Johnson? I did. Good. Monster.
>> Jackson Powers-Johnson got his right leg rolled up on Saturday and had to leave the field. He was blocking when the injury occurred. Lanning said after the game that it looks like he’ll be OK.
“I want to get the medical professionals eval on that, but it sounds like he’s OK,” Lanning told reporters. “I got to see him there in the locker room.”
Coaches always want to get in and out of these types of games healthy, but Lanning’s decision to have guys going full-throttle at one-another is admirable. Making certain every time the team steps out on the field the competition is as intense as can be will only serve this team well in the long run.
>> Running back Byron Cardwell did not play in the spring game for what Lanning said was simply precautionary reasons. He was, however, dressed to play. Sean Dollars and Noah Whittington handled the bulk of the running back responsibilities. Both looked good. If Oregon is going to be more aggressive in taking shots downfield with the passing game, maintaining an efficient run game will be important. The Ducks have the offensive line to be a dominant rushing outfit, and it looks like they have a capable stable of backs as well.