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All-American? Unsung Duck not so sure

Redshirt freshman Johnstone has done well at left tackle


Tyler JohnstoneA writer from espn.com, Mark Schlabach, put together a “Midseason All-America team,” which included most of the prominent college football players around the country, including Oregon running back Kenjon Barner and Oregon State defensive end Scott Crichton — and, of course, UO redshirt freshman offensive tackle Tyler Johnstone.

Huh?

“That’s a little surprising,” UO coach Chip Kelly says. “He’s played well for us. I’m happy with his performance.”

Indeed, Johnstone admitted to being somewhat sheepish when he read the espn.com story. Sure, he has been solid through the first seven games (heading into the noon Saturday game against Colorado at Autzen Stadium), even overcoming an early injury, bouncing back and helping protect QB Marcus Mariota and power the way for the Ducks to average 51.0 points, 529.1 yards offense and 317.1 yards rushing per game.

But, All-America?

“I don’t think so. But I saw that and it made me want to earn it,” he says. “I feel like I’m playing pretty well, but not at an All-America level. Don’t know if that’s me.”

The 6-6, 295-pound Johnstone, however, came to the Ducks highly regarded out of Chandler, Ariz., and earned his way on the field at left tackle, playing next to senior Ryan Clanton (who replaced Carson York at left guard) and opposite true sophomore Jake Fisher at right tackle. Yes, the Ducks have second-year players at offensive tackle, and they continue to churn out the yards. Must mean Johnstone and Fisher are pretty good.

“Both are competitors, extremely athletic, tall, long — what we’re looking for in recruiting,” Kelly says. “They get better each week.”

Adds Johnstone: “ ‘Fish’ is a little more comfortable with the scheme, having played last year.”

Johnstone has bonded with Clanton, on and off the field.

“Me and ‘Ryno’ have great chemistry,” he says. “It helps communication on the field, being good friends off the field. Ryno’s helped me more than anybody on the line. He’s right there, every play. I always run something by him before I make a call; guess it’s not a good show on my confidence, but it’s nice to have him right there. He’ll always correct me if I’m wrong. He’s always got my back.”

Fisher, incidentally, also has a senior (Nick Cody) playing next to him.

Who knows? Maybe by season’s end, we’ll be talking about Johnstone as a bona fide All-American. For now, he’s clearly on people’s radar.

n Backup quarterback Bryan Bennett has been involved in maybe the two most bizarre, highlighted touchdowns of the UO season — when he a and when a scrambling Bennett dumped off the ball to Mariota for a touchdown against Arizona State.

“They haven’t come exactly how we planned,” Bennett says. “But, six points is six points.”

Bennett has overcome the disappointment of not being named the starter. He has played in most of the blowout victories and also in a red-zone set that has included tight end Lyerla as a running back and Mariota as a receiver.

He is still one bad play (a Mariota injury) away from being the No. 1 QB.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to Marcus,” he says. “He’s doing a great job. I’ve got a lot of respect for him, how he’s playing. At the same time, I still have to prepare, be ready, same as last year. Anything could happen. Got to prepare like you’re the starter.”

n The Ducks exploded for 43 unanswered points in whipping Arizona State 43-21, moving to 7-0 and staying at No. 2 in polls (except in the BCS standings, where they dropped to fourth). In the offensive game plan were three designed long throws from Mariota to Josh Huff, two in man coverage. None of them connected. But one will eventually, Huff says. It’d be another added weapon for the UO offense.

“Got to be patient,” Huff says. “Every time we go to the sideline, (Mariota) and I communicate — what did he see? What can I do to get open?”

n Mariota had an early turnover at Arizona State, but led the Ducks’ offensive explosion, completing 9 of 12 passes and rushing for 135 yards — 86 on a great fake-and-run TD play.

He surely passed the road test, dealing with routine nerves but also thriving off the environment, situation and pressure.

“To kind of go through this was a stepping stone, a good thing to learn from,” he says. “I actually kind of enjoy it, being on the road.”

n After Colorado comes the biggest game of the year, at USC on Nov. 3.

Huff’s take on the Ducks: “The defense is playing sensational. In past years, we’ve been known for our offense. Now our defense is playing at a high level. It makes us more of a balanced team. We have to step it up (at times, offensively), having a killer instinct, not being satisfied with the score.” Especially, he adds, because the Ducks haven’t been tested in the fourth quarter of games, yet.

How good can the Ducks be?

“It’s really how good we let ourselves be,” Mariota says. “We tend to hurt ourselves.

n Defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti could be coaching the best defense in his UO tenure. Linebacker Boseko Lokombo says it’s the best of his four years in Eugene, and its strength goes beyond just speed.

“It’s chemistry, being able to play with each other, being comfortable around each other,” he says. “Speed is second nature to us.”