The education of Steven Jones on Oregon’s offensive line will speed up.
The true freshman didn't play in four of the first five games as coach Mario Cristobal referred to him as a candidate to get more playing time later in the season.
The Ducks decided to do that during Saturday’s 42-21 win over UCLA when Jones rotated in at left tackle during every other series while Calvin Throckmorton switched over to right guard.
“Coach told me before the game that he might need me a little bit,” Jones recalled.
Cristobal needed him more than expected when center Jake Hanson was ejected late in the third quarter for targeting. Throckmorton moved to center and Jones went the rest of the way at left tackle.
“I felt pretty comfortable,” Jones said. “For me, it is the first play when I get jitters. Once I make contact with the opponent, I am good for the rest of the game.”
Jones is expected to be the third Duck to start at left tackle this season when Oregon (6-3, 3-3) visits Utah (6-3, 4-3) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday. Hanson must sit out the first half due to the targeting penalty.
Penei Sewell became the first true freshman to start a season opener on the offensive line for Oregon since 1997 and stayed there until an ankle injury against Washington forced him to miss the rest of the regular season. After Throckmorton started the last three games at left tackle, Jones will likely become the second true freshman to fill that spot for the Ducks.
“We have arguably one freshman All-American go down and we have another guy who could be a freshman All-American,” UO left guard Shane Lemieux said.
Jones made his college debut against Portland State, but did not play again until Sewell was injured against the Huskies.
“Right around the Stanford game was when I started inching up more and elevating my game,” Jones said. “I started focusing more on the little things and not overthinking everything. … I need to go out there and do my job. Don’t be hesitant and fly off the ball.”
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 375 pounds, Jones may be the largest man to ever suit up for the Ducks.
“He played with power, he played with poise, with balance,” Cristobal said. “He created some room in the run game and did a real nice job in protection.”
Jones played left tackle at Chaparral High School in Temecula, Calif., where he was a four-star prospect considered among the top 300 recruits in his class. Jones will not be able to redshirt once he plays in another game, joining Sewell as the two members from the freshman class of offensive linemen to get on the field.
“Right when Penei went down, I asked him what he did to prepare,” Jones said. “He and I worked together all fall and we didn’t care who was in front of who, we just tried to make the team better. When he went down he told me to get ready and gave me some tips.”
Jones continues to get advice in practice from Sewell as well as Throckmorton and Lemieux.
“The older guys tell me not to be so hard on myself, but that’s how I am,” Jones said. “I might have a good play, but I always think that it’s not good enough.”
With Sewell out for the rest of the regular season, Hanson forced to sit for the first half at Utah, and right guard Dallas Warmack battling injuries during a couple games, the Ducks keep adjusting their depth chart on the line. Junior right tackle Brady Aiello moved into the starting lineup against Washington State when Throckmorton switched to the left side. Redshirt sophomore Jacob Capra replaced Warmack when he was injured against the Bruins.
“During the spring we heard about how much depth we have and it is starting to show how useful that is,” Capra said. “We have the most dudes on this line that can play as we have had in my three years here. We have a lot of guys who can go in and start. It is rare to see a true freshman play on the offensive line and even more rare to see two of them play well at left tackle.”
Jones and Lemieux were with the first team on the left side of the line during Tuesday’s practice with Throckmorton at center. Warmack and Aiello were the starters on the right side.
That is how the Ducks are expected to line up at Utah until Hanson returns for the second half. The junior has started all 34 games for Oregon at center during the past three seasons, but sat out spring practice this year with an injury.