EUGENE, Ore. — Oregon center Hroniss Grasu jokes about how he should have planned ahead: His apartment lease ran out, so he’s staying in a hotel while the Ducks prepare for the national championship.
Kidding aside, living out of a suitcase is just fine with Grasu because it means he gets to play in one more game with the Ducks.
While quarterback Marcus Mariota is the unquestioned leader of the team, Grasu is its anchor.
Both players decided last year at about this time that they would return for another season at Oregon.
Asked this week about what it would feel like to win next Monday night when the Ducks face Ohio State for the title, Grasu said that he honestly hadn’t considered it yet.
“I’m not thinking about what it would feel like if we win a national championship, I’m just thinking about what I’ve got to do to get this team in the best position to win,” he said. “We’ll just do whatever it takes.”
The 6-foot-3 senior, who is just shy of 300 pounds, is considered one of the best players at his position and a top prospect at center for the NFL draft this spring. He’s always been a perfect fit in Oregon’s hyper-drive offense because he’s quick and agile despite his size.
Going into this season, it looked like Oregon’s offensive line — which helped Oregon lead the Pac-12 in rushing, scoring and total offense in 2013 — would be a force with five returning starters.
But then left tackle Tyler Johnstone injured his right knee during fall camp and was declared done for the season. Jake Fisher moved over from right tackle to Johnstone’s spot and junior Andre Yruretagoyena took the right tackle spot — that is until Yruretagoyena injured his foot against Michigan State in Week 2.
Then Fisher hurt his knee against Wyoming the next week, leaving the Ducks with inexperienced options at tackle for games against Washington State and Arizona. Mariota was sacked 12 times over the course of those two games.
Then tackle Matt Pierson went down with a left knee injury late in a victory over Stanford on Nov. 1. Grasu himself missed the final two regular-season games, against Colorado and Oregon State, after hurting his lower left leg on Nov. 8 against Utah.
“There wasn’t one injury that I didn’t have faith in the coaching staff and the players that they weren’t going to step up. It was just, ‘Who’s the next guy? They’re going to step up.’ There was never any doubt in my mind that our team, our players weren’t ready or our coaching staff wasn’t ready,” he said.
— Hroniss Grasu
Grasu returned to play in the Rose Bowl playoff victory against Florida State, although he said he didn’t do as well as he would have liked. He’s like that, always trying to figure out how to get better.
“I could have been a little more physical but we got the W and that’s all that matters to me,” he said. “But I felt good, I could move, I could run. Right now I’ve got to get healthy again and get ready to go.”
Grasu, who grew up in the Los Angeles area, became Oregon’s starting center as a redshirt freshman after beating out Karrington Armstrong for the job. At the time, then-coach Chip Kelly said the best compliment he could give Grasu was that he never had to think about him.
Grasu is just as important to the Ducks off the field. Twice he’s been honored with the team’s Todd Doxey Award for the player that best represents the “spirituality, dedication and brotherhood associated with being an outstanding teammate.” The award is named after the Oregon defensive back who drowned in an accident shortly before the 2008 season.
Throughout the past three seasons, he has developed an almost symbiotic relationship with Mariota. It seemed natural that when Mariota decided to stay for another year, Grasu did too.
But it wasn’t about a national title back then, and it isn’t now — although that would be an added bonus. Grasu wanted his degree. And another year with his Oregon brothers.
“I didn’t come back for unfinished business, to win a Pac-12, Rose Bowl or national championship,” he said emphatically. “I came back to be around this group of guys.”