The Miami transfer was a top-75 prospect in the 2017 recruiting class
Considering the coaching changes leading up to the 2017 national signing day and then Willie Taggart’s departure 10 months later, Oregon’s class has held up pretty well.
CJ Verdell established himself as the starting running back with 1,018 yards last season, Cyrus Habibi-Likio added seven touchdowns as the goal-line back and Darrian Felix is in the mix for significant carries after redshirting due to injury.
Wide receivers Jaylon Redd and Johnny Johnson are running with the No. 1 offense. Both are experienced targets quarterback Justin Herbert will lean on to help replace Dillon Mitchell’s production.
Defensive tackle Jordon Scott, defensive end Austin Faoliu, safety Nick Pickett and cornerbacks Deommodore Lenoir and Thomas Graham are all returning starters. Linebackers Isaac Slade-Matautia and Sampson Niu are competing to start at the spot next to Troy Dye.
And now a top-75 overall player from the 2017 recruiting cycle, DJ Johnson, is ready to join his new classmates on a full-time basis after sitting out the 2018 campaign.
Johnson spent most of last season on the scout team after transferring from Miami. The 6-foot-5, 272-pound sophomore made his Oregon debut off the bench in the Redbox Bowl.
“Iron sharpens iron,” Johnson said of competing against the first-team offensive line while trying to simulate opposing defensive players and schemes last fall. “I was able to go against them every day. Every game week before they played against a team, I was able to go against them. …
“It was definitely a learning experience going against them and watching them play against other people. I could kind of gauge to see what I need to improve on.”
The brawny Johnson, who was listed at 240 pounds during his freshman season at Miami, studied the outside linebacker position in Jim Leavitt’s defense during the transition year.
“I mean, he’s the predator,” outside linebacker La’Mar Winston said of Johnson leading up to the Ducks’ 7-6 win over Michigan State in the bowl. “I could talk DJ all day, but ya’ll about to see. He’s a beast. I’m really excited for him. He’s been working in the lab just waiting patiently for his turn. Now it’s time.”
Johnson has been auditioning at the “stud” and defensive end spots for new defensive coordinator Andy Avalos during fall camp.
“I’m learning both,” Johnson said. “It just gives me an opportunity to optimize my ability to be wherever he wants to play me. He’s a coach that pays attention to details and little things. I feel like that will be really beneficial for our defense.”
Johnson was the most touted defensive recruit in Miami’s 2017 class and only ranked behind Lenoir in Oregon’s class. The four-star prospect from Sacramento decided to move back to the West Coast to be near his ailing parents.
“I wanted to be closer to my mom and my dad because I found out they were having problems with their bodies, health problems,” said Johnson, who has two much younger siblings still living at home. “I don't want to be far away from them, just in case I need to see them for whatever reason.”
Oregon defensive line coach Joe Salave’a made a late recruiting pitch to Johnson, who had more than 100 scholarship offers, after joining Taggart’s staff.
“I think DJ has a lot of intangibles and athleticism,” Salave’a said after Thursday’s practice, the sixth of camp, when asked where Johnson fits. “Right now it’s so hard to say because he can flash on the outside as an outside 'backer, but he also has the ability to put his hand down.
“Right now we’re kind of just trying to evaluate him daily and find out where he’s going to really, truly be a viable part of our defense.”
Johnson played in eight games as a true freshman and had three tackles, including two in the ACC championship game against Clemson, in his only season with the Hurricanes. He is one of several touted newcomers in the front seven.
Five-star recruit Kayvon Thibodeaux has also been getting snaps at the stud position after spending most of spring practice at defensive end.
“They're both really explosive players, and we would like to build the versatility since that body type is unique,” coach Mario Cristobal said of Johnson and Thibodeaux. “They were both really effective in the spring. So we want to create snap value … we like the studs and the ends to be able to flop with each other and compete against each other.”
True freshman Mase Funa, listed at 6-2, 260 pounds, is another big body expected to join the rotation up front.
“He's a great football player, extremely physical,” Cristobal said. “We’ve got to get him on the field as early as we can and as often as we can. We felt that's the best way to do it now right now this year. So he's trimmed down to about 260. He's going to have a tremendous impact.”
With the 2017 recruits now entering their third season in the program, coupled with the influx of young talent, the Ducks believe they have the necessary ingredients to contend again in the Pac-12.
“Definitely,” Johnson said. “Cristobal did a great job recruiting, a great job motivating us and setting us up with coaches that want the best for us. And optimizing our camp so that we can have the best camp we’ve ever had so we can have the best season.”