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Oregon's Grasu is center of attention

EUGENE — Oregon senior center Hroniss Grasu never would have played football if his parents had their way.

Steve and Mariana Grasu, immigrants from Romania, preferred soccer over American football, which they saw as too dangerous.

It was only reluctantly Grasu was allowed to kick for his high school team, and when a coach put him on the offensive line, well, he didn’t exactly mention it to his folks.

It was a long, silent ride home when the Grasus attended their son’s first game.

“They enjoy it now,” he said, laughing. “They come to every single game, home and away. I think I’ve got the family hooked on football.”

Lucky for Oregon the Grasus allowed their son to keep playing. Now a senior, Grasu is unquestionably the No. 3 Ducks’ anchor, according to quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Grasu, who is 6-foot-3 and just shy of 300 pounds, is considered one of the best players at his position in the nation, and he’s on the preseason watch lists for the Outland and Rimington trophies.

He heads a strong group of linemen that helped Oregon lead the Pac-12 in rushing, scoring and total offense last season. The line was to return all five starters, but Tyler Johnstone injured his right knee during fall camp and is out for the season.

“We’ve got so many guys on this team who are on the same page as me, guys that have a lot of experience and a lot of playing time. But we have so much work to get done,” Grasu said. “We’ve always got to get a new standard, reach a new standard, and then set another one.”

Grasu grew up in the Los Angeles area, where his parents own a chain of pizza parlors. His older brother, Nico, was a kicker at Washington State.

He 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.

But Grasu is just as important to the Ducks for his role off the field. Players often mention that he is everyone’s go-to teammate for advice. For the past two seasons the team has honored him with the 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.

Considered a solid NFL prospect at center, Grasu instead opted to return to the Ducks for his senior year. Mariota and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu also decided to stick around for another season.

“It’s not ‘unfinished business.’ It’s about coming back for this team, coming back for this community, for this coaching staff. It’s about becoming better football players. It’s about becoming a better team. That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Obviously our goal is to win a national championship. It’s no secret at all. If we prepare like we should prepare, if we practice like we should practice, the sky’s the limit for this team.”

Oregon went 11-2 last season, finishing with a 30-7 victory over Texas in the Alamo Bowl. Oregon’s two late-season losses, to Stanford and Arizona, cost the Ducks a shot at the national championship and the Pac-12 title.

Mariota joked that Grasu is particularly protective of him, especially since a knee injury hampered the Ducks’ star quarterback last season.

“Hroniss always gives me a hard time about swinging a golf club — he doesn’t want me to hurt my back,” Mariota said.

Said Grasu: “I joke around with him, like if we’re crossing the street, I’ll kind of hold his hand a little bit.”

Mariota averaged nearly 282 yards passing per game and threw for 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions last season. While protecting him is obviously key to Oregon’s success, Grasu said Oregon may have relied on him a bit too much. That’s why Grasu’s goal this year is to put more of an emphasis on the team effort.

“Every touchdown that happens with this offense is a highlight to me because obviously the offensive line had something to do with it,” he said. “When I see Marcus score, when I see (wide receiver) Keanon Lowe score, when I see (running back) Byron Marshall score, that’s like the offensive line is also scoring the touchdown. It’s all for the team, it’s what we do as a team together.”

Oregon center Hroniss Grasu (55) blocks during a game last year against Arizona. His parents wanted him to play soccer, not American football, when he was a younger.