RB depth a UO blessing

Starter Jonathan Stewart is prolific but injury-prone, so Jeremiah Johnson gets the call

EUGENE -Jonathan Stewart's pain has been Jeremiah Johnson's gain for Oregon, which could lead the Pac-10 in rushing for the first time in 51 years.

Johnson, the Ducks' other sophomore running back, gained 86 yards and scored three touchdowns in last week's 55-12 win over Portland State. He could factor even more heavily into Saturday's 12:30 p.m. Pac-10 game against Washington at Autzen Stadium, considering that the oft-injured Stewart has yet another body part hurting him.

Beset by ankle injuries and other aches and pains this season and last, Stewart suffered bruised ribs and a strained abdomen, exposed areas not covered by football pads, when PSU safety Charles Manigo rode him through the Viking bench.

After a brief rest, Stewart tried to run the ball on a carry and landed on his ribs when tackled. No avail, too much pain - Stewart left the game for good with two carries for eight yards, and Johnson took over.

The same scenario happened at Fresno State. Stewart couldn't go because of an ankle injury; he scored on his only carry. But Johnson rushed for 74 yards and two scores. Clearly, Stewart feels comfortable in deferring to his backup, Johnson, when he doesn't feel 100 percent healthy.

'If he wasn't here, I would have had to find some way to play through it,' says Stewart, who expects to play against the Huskies.

Coach Mike Bellotti says Stewart needs to learn to play through pain, and know the difference between pain and injury. Stewart agrees, but UO coaches also put the onus on the player to determine whether he can play.

'Everything revolves around your core,' says Stewart, explaining why he sat most of the PSU game. 'If something goes wrong, it's hard to play.'

Stewart disputes the durability question that Bellotti and others have raised about him, saying that the injured left ankle last year and the injured right ankle this year have lingered - 'and now this,' the strained abdomen.

'And I'm playing football and they're going to get reinjured,' he says of his sore spots. 'It's not a durability question with me; they're just accidents with me.'

Johnson says Stewart has never shown frustration over the injuries.

'He's a very tough kid,' Johnson says. 'He'd be hurting and still want to go out there. … He's handling it like a pro. Some people would get frustrated and lose it.'

When running well, Stewart's combination of power, speed and moves can be devastating. Smaller at 5-10, 215 pounds, Johnson doesn't possess quite the power or the speed, but he demonstrates his share of moves. Those moves keep with his philosophy of avoiding tacklers instead of taking them straight on, which Stewart has been known to do.

The Ducks landed two running backs in 2005, and everybody knew about Stewart of Lacey, Wash., but fewer people paid much attention to Johnson. From Dorsey High in Los Angeles, Johnson hooked up with Oregon earlier because his brother joined the Ducks, if only briefly. Jerome Johnson never played, leaving school because of an academic issue.

Bellotti called Stewart and Johnson maybe the best tandem running backs in the 2005 national recruiting class. The coach said they each eventually could gain 1,000 yards in the same season.

The backs have lived up to the hype -each played last year, and they have teamed for more than 1,000 yards through eight games this season, 639 for Stewart, 457 for Johnson. Stewart averages 5.9 yards per carry, Johnson 6.4.

After their 196 yards against PSU, the Ducks lead the Pac-10 in rushing at 192 yards per game. Oregon last led the Pac-10 in rushing in 1955 and last averaged more than 200 yards per game in 1980 (213.3).

But Stewart's injuries and Chris Vincent's season-ending foot injury have hurt the Ducks' positional depth.

With former Cleveland High running back Andiel Brown sidelined for two weeks with a broken left finger, Andre Crenshaw will have to get ready this week as the No. 3 tailback. True freshman Remene Alston becomes No. 4.

Johnson says he has never felt overshadowed by Stewart.

'If I thought I was better than him, I wouldn't be happy,' Johnson says. 'He's a great player. I don't mind playing behind a guy like that.'

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