A commonly applied analogy to offensive play is the hand. If one digit is out of place, it can't make a fist. With left tackle Tyler Johnstone sustaining a season-ending knee injury this week, the Oregon Ducks need a quick remedy in order to knuckle up for the start of the season.
Johnstone is a preseason All-America candidate, two-year starter and was to be the cornerstone of the Pac-12's most seasoned offensive line.
But in reinjuring the knee that sidelined him throughout the offseason, Johnstone leaves Oregon with a tremendous void that head coach Mark Helfrich and his staff must fill quickly.
This setback is obviously significant for the Ducks offense. However, Johnstone's absence from spring practices lessens the learning curve somewhat for junior Andre Yruretagoyena, who practiced with the first string in April.
Now playing a role as Oregon's "left tackle coach," as he described to Tyson Alger of The Oregonian, Johnstone hopes to help Yruretagoyena through the process.
"He wanted to earn a spot for himself on the O-line and I think that's the thing that's difficult for him," Johnstone said. "He didn't want it to happen this way. He's going to jump at the opportunity, though. I've had a couple of talks with him about how he's the guy now."
Johnstone's commitment to contributing off the field is no surprise to quarterback Marcus Mariota, as he told Ryan Thorburn of The Register-Guard.
"We understand that Tyler is going to do his best to contribute anyway he can," Mariota said. "He's one of our spiritual leaders, he's one of those guys who can really get guys going. He understands he can use his words to be powerful and mean a lot of things."
The Ducks need Johnstone's presence as a leader to help manifest in the presence of his replacements on the field. Yruretagoyena and Matt Pierson took on first-team repetitions in the spring while Johnstone recovered from the knee injury he suffered in last December's Alamo Bowl.
Even as Yruretagoyena settles into the top spot on the depth chart, offensive line coach Steve Greatwood told Alger, "Next week we'll starting moving some guys to different positions and build that depth across the board."
Johnstone was tasked with protecting Mariota's blind side, a role of paramount importance for the Ducks offense. Yruretagoyena is talented—he was a 4-star prospect coming into the program—and he's well-tenured within the program. The 2014 season is his fourth with the Ducks.
But Yruretagoyena's window for getting up to Johnstone's speed on game day is narrow. The Ducks host Michigan State in Week 2, a team that racked up 91 tackles for loss and ranked No. 2 nationally in rush defense a season ago.
Yruretagoyena will likely draw the most difficult assignment—preseason All-American defensive end Shilique Calhoun.
Oregon's new starting left tackle isn't without support. The other four returners across the Ducks front five logged starts a season ago. Hroniss Grasu, Jake Fisher and Hamani Stevens are seasoned veterans.
However, a dramatic shift in even just one position can have profound consequences—a reality the Ducks experienced firsthand last season.
While Mariota was playing through an injury of his own, the offensive line lost guard Mana Greig. Greig's absence threw freshman Cameron Hunt into the mix.
Hunt is now among the game-tested leaders of the Ducks' most experienced starting unit, but he did face struggles acclimating initially.
The hope for Yruretagoyena is that years of practicing in the system and backing up the Oregon starters have him prepared to hit the ground running—and he'll need to in order to help keep the Ducks offense running.
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