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Justin Herbert was under-recruited out of high school because he was busy being a leader

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That and a lot more about the Chargers newest franchise QB

NCAA Football: Colorado at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The first thing I notice in Justin Herbert’s high school highlights is that he truly looks like a player who does not belong there. Maybe it’s just the uniforms, but it kinda reminds me of “what if Carson Wentz played on a high school team? like right now?”

I kind of hate highlight reels for that reason. You can’t get a feeling of a player by watching a series of 10-second clips spliced from random games and missing virtually all of the context. You know a player better by watching a whole game, and many of them, but highlight reels do serve functions. Like watching one and going, “The dude just doesn’t belong.”

That’s where a highlight reel can paint you the picture you need to keep looking for tape until he doesn’t only look like Superman.

But in spite of how I feel about “Superman” now, Herbert was not that prized of a recruit coming out of high school. And then when he did get to choose a Pac-12 school to play for, it may have never even happened if not for a late de-commitment from a quarterback who is now a receiver and then beating out another who was more highly-prized from the same class.

Before he became the third quarterback off the board in the 2020 draft, Herbert wasn’t even in the top three quarterbacks people considered as a viable option as Oregon headed into the 2016 season. He was a legit NFL prospect by the end of that same year.

Early

Imagine being Chris Miller, the NFL veteran quarterback who was drafted 13th overall in 1987, made a Pro Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons in 1991, then later became a precursor to Kurt Warner with the St. Louis Rams in 1995 and played with Jerome Bettis and Isaac Bruce. Imagine it. How was it? Not that bad, right?

Now imagine being Miller years after you’ve retired and you’re running a youth athletics organization in Eugene, Oregon, and you see a 10-year-old throw a pass with the acumen and skill of a quarterback whose at least 16. A fourth grade who just doesn’t belong.

Not that bad, right? You’re Chris Miller and you’ve just scouted that an elementary school player is going to one day be a top-10 draft pick.

“I watched him roll to the left on the Kidsports field, flip his hips and rip one across the field about 30 to 35 yards on a line,” Miller said. “When I saw him make that throw I thought, oh man, we’ve got to keep track of this kid.”

The kid was Justin Herbert.

Herbert was born in Eugene on March 10, 1998. He had family in Southern California, however, including a grandfather in San Diego and another in Fullerton. Not having a team in Oregon, he and his brothers were San Diego Chargers fans.

Then at some point he impressed Chris Miller, another Eugene native, and later he would play football at Sheldon High School, same as Miller.

High School

If Miller was excited about seeing Herbert become a varsity QB at Sheldon, I imagine everyone else in Eugene was too, including head football coach Lane Johnson. I really wish that this was a situation where Lane Johnson was playing for the Philadelphia Eagles and coaching in Eugene at the same time, but they are different Oregon people. Herbert waited through his freshman and sophomore seasons for that to happen, but then got off to an extraordinary season in 2014 as a junior.

In the first three games, Herbert was 48-of-75 for 688 yards, 10 touchdowns, no interceptions, and 161 rushing yards with another score. Things unfortunately came to a complete halt at that point when he broke his leg and was out for the rest of the season.

“He felt like he had let his teammates down,” said Johnson, who retired this year as Sheldon’s coach after 31 years on staff. “I said, ‘Justin, you got hurt. It wasn’t like you went out and smoked dope and got kicked off the team — you got hurt!’

“That had a real effect on him, and I believe in kind of a weird way made him appreciate football and athletics in general a little bit more.”

As is often the case in life, the “setback” may have proven to be the key that allowed Herbert to eventually follow in Miller’s footsteps once again when he eventually got his scholarship to his only school of choice.

The broken leg proved how quickly an opportunity could be taken away. This year, after new coach Willie Taggart reopened competitions for playing time at every position, Herbert was determined not to let his starting job slip away, too. For the first time, he has stopped playing basketball and baseball, sports he starred in during high school, to focus solely on football.

It was not insignificant for Herbert to give up basketball to focus on becoming a quarterback. Not only did Sheldon’s basketball team finish as state runners up the year before with Herbert as a starter, but there are a lot more 6’6 players in college basketball and the NBA than there are 6’6 quarterbacks in the NFL.

Not really a consideration though when you’re 17 and kind of great at everything. But Herbert followed the talent that Miller saw in him and focused on football. Which paid off in a major way in 2015. Johnson discusses Herbert’s improvements from his junior to his senior season in this YouTube video that has 89 views as of me writing this.

“This biggest improvement in Justin is his leadership,” says Johnson. “He’s taken our team by the horns, if you will, and done a great job of leading.”

As a senior at Sheldon, Herbert dominated.

177-of-266, 2,915 yards, 36 touchdowns, three interceptions, 521 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns.

Herbert wasn’t getting much attention on a national scale prior to that. Maybe it’s because of the fact that he broke his leg as a junior and maybe as he started to get attention, it was just apparent that Herbert wasn’t going anywhere but to the Pac-12 college that is right in his backyard, but there’s little record of anyone other than maybe Miller and Johnson believing that he could be in the position that he’s in today.

At Rivals, Herbert was a 3-star dual-threat quarterback with no national ranking of any kind.

Among those other schools that Herbert was considering were Montana State, Northern Arizona, and Portland State. Far from playing at Oregon in more ways than geography.

At 247, Herbert is a 3-star dual-threat quarterback ranked 659th nationally.

Oddly (to me), they only list Herbert among the pro style quarterbacks. He’s 26th overall, situated between Anthony Russo and Brennen Wooten; Temple and TCU commits respectively. For the most part, I only recognize names listed above Herbert because I’ve done a lot of research on 2020 NFL rookies in the last month. The only two who have emerged as pro “franchise” quarterbacks so far are Herbert and Dwayne Haskins, who was ranked seventh.

Over on the Dual Threat side, you’ll see Jalen Hurts ranked fourth, but the name I’m interested in is Terry Wilson. No, he wasn’t a first round draft pick this year. Or a draft pick at all. Terry Wilson was a three-star dual threat QB out of Oklahoma City and he chose to play for the Oregon Ducks in 2016. Same as Justin Herbert. Wilson was rated as a four-star QB by some and appeared to have a leg up.

In one article with Oregon’s first 13 commitments in the 2016 class, Wilson is shown as four stars, 11 others are three or four stars, and Herbert is the lone player with “unrated.”

That article, by the way, was of another four-star quarterback choosing not to go to Oregon. Herbert may have bled green, but four-star quarterback Seth Green literally had it in his name. Green was a dual threat quarterback out of Allen, Texas who had committed to the Ducks. But he eventually flipped it over to Minnesota, which is exactly when Herbert got his dream scholarship offer from the school with the stadium he grew up 10 minutes from.

“I’ve been told he de-committed,” Herbert explained.

On October 9, 2015, Justin Herbert got an offer from Oregon and immediately committed. And instead of a three-way battle of true freshman, it was down to two. Green, by the way, is now a running back/receiver for the Gophers.

Prior to getting his offer from the Ducks, Herbert was going to go play for Montana State, which is where his brother was playing. “I didn’t really have a lot of opportunities to play football,” Herbert explains. Why not?

This is where I think it really gets interesting because I think I’ve cracked the code of why: he was too good of a leader. I know it sounds like an interview answer but it’s the truth in this case.

In the following video, Herbert is asked how he could go from only getting an offer from Montana State to being a top-ranked quarterback and his gut reaction is to say, “I don’t really know.”

Herbert says that he didn’t go to a whole lot of camps, that he played basketball and baseball, and didn’t really worry about recruiting. Also that he only played his senior year. But a lot of five-star recruits play three sports, or at least two. A lot only start for one season, let alone one season and an excellent three-game stint in the other. But not going to a whole lot of camps does say something.

In the video I posted above from his high school coach Lane Johnson, Johnson explains that Herbert is a good leader because his number one commitment was always to the football team first. Even if it cost him chances to be seen by scouts and to be put on a national radar.

“Didn’t miss a summer workout. He gave up some opportunities to go do some things that probably would have helped him to get exposure. And he said “Coach, I’m not gonna do anything if it means I have to miss any of our workouts.””

There you have it. Justin Herbert’s worst quality is that he’s too good.

That leadership quality may not have gotten him any offers outside of the one he really wanted, but it did put him in the driver’s seat immediately as a true freshman.

part two.