by Rob Moseley
LOS ANGELES — As a high school recruit, Hamani Stevens was the No. 11 center in the recruiting class of 2008. So when the Oregon football team asked him to shift from guard to center after Hroniss Grasu was injured this fall, the Ducks weren't exactly turning to a green prospect.
In the three games Stevens has started at center, he's performed like a seasoned veteran. Against Colorado, Oregon State and Arizona, the Ducks averaged nearly 255 rushing yards per game, and finished off the regular season as Pac-12 champions. "I never felt like I was out of the game, or not able to perform, being able to hike the ball and block," Stevens said. "Luckily I was able to step in and do an adequate job."
Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood helped make sure of that, giving Stevens practice reps at center throughout his career. Those proved invaluable after Grasu went down at Utah. "He didn't need much help at all," Grasu said. "He was so mature. I didn't have to do too much, so a lot of credit goes to Hamani."
As the Ducks prepare to face Florida State in a College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl, however, the hope is that Stevens' clutch fill-in performance can come to an end. Grasu, a senior four-year starter, has been methodically working his way back from his injury, after promising initially that he hadn't played his last snap at Oregon.
Stevens said the return of Grasu would provide a jolt of confidence for the UO offensive line. "It brings a confidence back, that you can't really build with someone being thrown in there," Stevens said. "It would fortify the line. And it would just be an awesome feeling to play next to him one more time."
Grasu's return would unite the two longest-tenured veterans of the UO offensive line, and two of its most experienced seniors. Stevens redshirted in 2008 before taking a church mission, returning to Oregon in 2011 — when Grasu entered the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman himself.
For the last two years, the two have been mainstays on the interior of the UO line. Their proximity extends off the field; Grasu and Stevens are roommates for Oregon's road trips, including this week for the Rose Bowl.
Their relationship is typical of two young men of college age. Grasu makes fun of Stevens' girth, and his frizzy hair. Stevens manhandles his roommate when Grasu decides he wants to try and wrestle.
It's a relationship of mutual respect, though, as well. Grasu envies Stevens' power. "His upper-body strength in the weight room is unbelievable," Grasu said. "He's the strongest on the team, and that's one thing I'd love to have."
Stevens, meanwhile, is in awe of Grasu's athleticism, rooted in his background playing soccer. Grasu's speed, which Stevens said could allow him to play tight end or defensive line, makes him highly effective pulling away from the line on running plays.
Stevens has been able to take on that role himself in Grasu's absence. "I don't feel like it's been a challenge — but I didn't do it as well as Hroniss would do it," Stevens said. "I don't think I did it as good as he did."
Come Thursday in the Rose Bowl, the Ducks hope to feature both Stevens' power and Grasu's athleticism together, reunited in the middle of the UO offensive line. If Stevens has to play center again, he's proven himself more than capable of doing so, but the roommates would like to be teammates in a game again this season.