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The Justin Herbert profile, Part II: The College Years

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An unlikely true freshman starter turns into a hometown Rose Bowl winner as an unlikely senior

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oregon vs Wisconsin Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I continue with Part II of my Justin Herbert profile here. Read about Herbert’s early and high school years here.

College

“A couple of months ago, I threw for Coach (Mark) Helfrich and (Scott) Frost. They let me know that they were still interested in me and talking to me,” Herbert explained. “The past couple of weeks I’ve been talking to Coach Frost and (Thursday) he wanted me to call Coach Helfrich. Coach Helfrich filled me in with a scholarship.”

Herbert, a Ducks football season-ticket holder who thought his dream of a future in Eugene was over after his leg injury, accepted on the spot.

At one point it really seemed like the Oregon Ducks could have a Pittsburgh Steelers type lineage with their head coaches.

Rich Brooks from 1977-1994. Mike Bellotti from 1995-2008. But when Chip Kelly’s tenure ended after four seasons when he left for the Eagles, things haven’t been quite as consistent. Or fruitful.

Mark Helfrich was Kelly’s first offensive coordinator in 2009, then when Kelly left, he became the head coach in 2013. Helfrich and Marcus Mariota led them to a national championship game appearance in 2014, right around the time that they were watching the local kid throw. And soon later offered to compete to replace Mariota’s successor.

With the Heisman-winning Mariota headed to the NFL in 2015, the Ducks turned to transfer Vernon Adams in 2015 and he had a fine season as they started the year ranked seventh and ended it ranked 19th. But in 2016, Adams was graduated, and the quarterback position was open. Just two years after the season ticket holder was watching his favorite team in the national championship against Ohio State, he was practicing and playing alongside them.

Unbelievable.

The Oregon QB timeline is broken down here.

2016 OFFSEASON — After the 2015 season, Oregon started its quarterback competition all over again. Morgan Mahalak, a four-star recruit for the Ducks, transferred to Towson, and Dakota Prukop transferred to Oregon from Montana State as a graduate transfer. In the spring, the competition looked to be between Prukop and redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen. Prukop seemed like the favorite, but it was intriguing to see if Jonsen could do enough in the summer and fall camp to win the job.

2016 PRESEASON — While all of the attention was on Dakota Prukop and Travis Jonsen in the quarterback competition, it was starting to become clear that true freshman Justin Herbert, from Sheldon High School in Eugene, was impressing coaches and teammates. When the depth chart was announced, there was no surprise that Prukop was the starter. There was, however, surprise in Herbert being named the backup, ahead of Jonsen. In fact, Jonsen had fallen all the way to No. 4, behind Prukop, Herbert and freshman Terry Wilson. For the second season in a row, the Ducks would open the season with a graduate transfer starting at quarterback. Fans had concerns.

2016 SEASON — With Dakota Prukop at quarterback, the offense lacked the pace it’s had in the past, and there were early signs that the team could have a bad season. Despite victories against UC Davis and Virginia, the Ducks didn’t dominate either game, and there was concern with Nebraska looming. Against the Huskers, Prukop struggled, finishing 14 of 23 for 146 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions, and the inexplicable decision to go for 2-point conversions cost the Ducks the game in a 35-32 loss. Oregon then lost to both Colorado and Washington State to start Pac-12 play, so a change was needed.

2016 SEASON — After losing its third game in a row and falling to 2-3, the Ducks benched Dakota Prukop and inserted true freshman quarterback Justin Herbert into the starting lineup against Washington. Herbert started the rest of the season, in which the Ducks went 2-5 to finish 4-8 overall. Herbert had wins against Arizona State and Utah, but the Ducks were 0-5 against everybody else. A bigger change was coming.

Why should I say anything when that breakdown is so good?

Even though the Ducks were huge disappointments in 2016, falling to 4-8 just two seasons after the Rose Bowl win, Herbert was a huge story. Or at least, he should have been. A true freshman from down the street comes in as perhaps the fourth option, wins the backup job, replaces the starter after five games to put up these stats:

162-255, 63.5%, 1,936 yards, 19 touchdowns, four interceptions, 161 rushing yards, two touchdowns

Herbert had become the first true freshman to start at quarterback since 1983. That quarterback:

Chris Miller.

Herbert was one of four quarterbacks in the nation to have more than 15 touchdowns with fewer than five interceptions. At one point he threw 12 touchdowns over three games, tied for the most in school history with Mariota and Joey Harrington. He threw six touchdowns against Cal, also tying a school record. His 512 total yards against Arizona State? A school record.

And facing 11th-ranked Utah in the second to last game of the year, Herbert faced a 14-3 deficit with barely one quarter left. He threw one touchdown. Then another to give the Ducks the lead. Then took back the lead with a touchdown run midway through the fourth.

Then finally won the game with a 17-yard touchdown throw and two seconds on the clock.

Herbert was quite literally living his dream, but wanted more wins. He would have to do so without Helfrich, who “agreed to part ways” after the 4-8 season and was replaced by Willie Taggert. This was not good news for Herbert.

Taggart did not name a starting quarterback despite Herbert being the starter at the conclusion of the 2016 season. After the spring game, Taggart called out Herbert’s leadership:

“I’m looking for more than just throwing touchdowns. I’m looking for a guy that can lead this football team. A guy that’s going to rally everybody on this team, not just the offensive guys, but defense and everyone. When we can find that guy, that’s when we are going to name a starter.”

Even though this was his take on Herbert, it wasn’t one shared by many. Of course it wouldn’t have been shared by high school coach Lane Johnson. Former Oregon/NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz called that talk BS on the Talkin’ Ducks podcast.

I tried so hard to get someone to give me something. Like, ‘He melted one time under pressure’ or ‘He yelled at a teammate’ or ‘He cried,’ whatever it was. Just something. Give me one piece of information that tells me he can’t lead the team. I got none of it. No one would say anything.

The thing about Herbert— One, is that all leadership stuff was ridiculous. I’m sure you’ve heard people talking… it’s from Willie Taggart. It’s ridiculous. The leadership is not a problem.

Taggart had also brought in a four-star quarterback in 2017, Braxton Burmeister, a player ranked just nine spots below Tua Tagovailoa among pro style quarterbacks that year. Even with Herbert throwing 19 touchdowns as a true freshman, Burmeister clearly had confidence he wouldn’t have to wait two or three years.

It was just so strange. As strange as the fact that Herbert was practically a no-star recruit who was able to spurn MONTANA STATE for his chance to play at Oregon. Herbert looked great in high school and his dominance as a senior was apparent. His dominance as a true freshman should have also been apparent:

Consider that Herbert finished third in the Pac-12 in yards per attempt (7.6) as a true freshman. He was also third in adjusted yards per attempt and third in efficiency, always behind Jake Browning of Washington and Sam Darnold at USC. Herbert didn’t have as many attempts but he was a true freshman putting up great numbers with a cast that really doesn’t feature a single notable NFL player outside of Royce Freeman.

Regardless of Taggart’s feelings towards Herbert’s leadership at the time, he went with the touchdowns, the efficiency, and the experience of Herbert over Burmeister or anyone else.

Herbert made eight starts as a sophomore, breaking his collarbone against Cal on September 30 then returning against Arizona on November 18. The team was 6-2 in his starts and 1-4 when he was out; Burmeister had thrown two touchdowns and six interceptions in his place.

Herbert was 139-of-206, 67.5%, 15 touchdowns, five interceptions, 183 rushing yards, and five touchdowns.

Herbert threw five picks on 206 attempts and his replacements threw seven picks on 104 attempts. Oregon went 7-6 and Taggart — whose “military-style practices” had sent players to the hospital — left to take the job at Florida State after only one season with the Ducks. Taggart was replaced by assistant head coach Mario Cristobal, who had previously coached at Florida International before becoming Nick Saban’s assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator, a position that won him national awards in 2015. Cristobal was also recruiting at Alabama in 2016, when Tua committed to the Crimson Tide.

But he left to go to Oregon as an assistant and was soon Herbert’s third head coach in three years.

This was good news for Justin Herbert. But not immediately.

Things did get better for Herbert as a junior, especially since he’s been healthy since his sophomore season, but some numbers took significant dips. Especially completion percentage. In 13 games in 2018, Herbert was below 60% in eight of them. His completion percentage dropped from 67.5 to 59.4 and his yards per target dropped from 9.6 to 7.8.

It’s hard to blame Cristobal entirely, as Cristobal was serving as co-offensive coordinator the year before as well.

Though his numbers were underwhelming, Herbert was still being considered as a potential top-10 draft pick in 2019 and in some ways preceded “Tank for Tua” with “Just-lose for Just-win.” Or something. Ya gotta admit, that wasn’t terrible for a first try. The New York Giants had been linked to Herbert for awhile and were sitting at pick six, looking for Eli Manning’s successor.

Against expectations, Herbert opted to return to Oregon for his senior season. Burmeister then transferred to Virginia Tech, another fallen recruit who had more stars in high school than the big star in college. But why would Herbert forego being a potential top-10 pick and risk an injury or maybe worse, regression, to return for his senior season?

Here’s some arguments laid out by Bri Amaranthus at NBC Sports Northwest in 2019:

Oregon’s 2019 schedule is not easy but Herbert’s return gives Oregon a shot to win the Pac-12 conference and possibly become a college football playoff contender.

And

Herbert’s decision to return will change the course of his legacy left at Oregon. A once dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, he wasn’t even an All-Pac-12 honorable mention pick in 2018.

2019 will be his chance to improve his 16-9 record as a starter. Also, Herbert can rise up in the record books: he currently ranks third in school history for career touchdown passes (62), third in completion percentage (62.7) and sixth in passing yards (6,904).

And

Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller advised that the junior should declare for the draft because he can’t dramatically improve his stock by returning. Miller had no doubt that Herbert could improve as a player with another year of college football, but that it’s unlikely it would result in him being drafted any higher.

Herbert couldn’t improve his draft stock but maybe another year could improve his chances of having a longer career. The bonus was that Herbert could increase the magic of living his dream out of being a QB for the Ducks with a Heisman trophy and a national championship if all broke right.

And it almost did.

Senior Year

With Herbert returning as the best and most experienced quarterback in the Pac-12, Oregon was ranked 11th going into the 2019 season. An early season loss rarely means complete doom for teams as good as Oregon, but they faced an immediate setback with a 27-21 loss to 16th-ranked Auburn on a neutral field in Week 1.

Herbert had Oregon out to a 21-6 lead midway through the third quarter, but the Ducks’ offense stalled, the defense gave up a few key plays, and the Tigers scored the game-winner with :09 seconds left.

Herbert completed 75% of his passes, threw for 242 yards, and had no turnovers.

They came out the next week and beat Nevada 77-6.

It would take seven straight wins just for Oregon to climb back up to #11, which they did with a 35-31 win over Browning and the Huskies in Week 8. Facing that elite college defense by Chris Petersen, Herbert completed 63.2%, 280 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions. He threw the game-winning score with 5:10 remaining.

Interestingly, Petersen had a chance to beat Oregon that day if he had just made a different decision years earlier. Petersen and offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith had watched him throw as a high schooler and didn’t see what the big deal was. That’s how Browning, and then later fourth round pick Jacob Eason, took over as UW’s QB instead of Herbert.

Two highly respected offensive minds, now former Washington head coach Chris Petersen and current Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith, the Huskies’ offensive coordinator at the time, watched Herbert practice at Sheldon and then passed.

What they perhaps didn’t factor into the equation was the fact that Herbert had put off having the screws taken out of the leg he fractured as a junior so he could play baseball.

“Washington wanted to come see him throw the week after he got his screws taken out and when they saw him throw they were like, ‘I don’t get it? What’s the big deal?’” Mark said. “But to win the state (baseball) championship at Sheldon meant way more to him than going to Washington. That was a no-brainer. Justin would have done it again a thousand times.

As a junior, Herbert beat a 7th-ranked Huskies team in OT to crush their national title aspirations. As a senior, he beat them again. Herbert threw six touchdowns and no picks in those two games.

After winning three more games in a row, bringing their streak to 10, the Ducks were ranked sixth in the country and facing the Arizona State Sun Devils. A team coached by former NFL head coach Herm Edwards and who’d already beaten two unranked teams last season: #18 Michigan State and #15 Cal. At one point, the Sun Devils were ranked 17th.

With everything going Herm’s way, ASU was up 24-7 with eight minutes on the clock.

The Ducks quickly rallied off two quick touchdown drives to make it 24-21, but an 81-yarder to Brandon Aiyuk, a 2020 first rounder, put Arizona State back up by 10. Herbert threw another touchdown pass 1:50 later, but time eventually ran out and Oregon lost 31-28.

That knocked Oregon out of the CFP race but Herbert led them to two more wins, including a 37-15 victory over fifth-ranked Utah in the Pac-12 championship. That win helped Herbert fulfill one of his 2020 goals, getting the Ducks into the Rose Bowl again and facing off against 11th-ranked Wisconsin.

Speaking of the Badgers ...

I’m the psycho who compares him to Russell Wilson

This is going to be very strange when talking about a 6’6 quarterback, but in several ways Herbert reminds me of former NC State and Wisconsin QB Russell Wilson. I have written about Wilson for basically his entire career, and Herbert’s leadership qualities, late game heroics, and late game near-heroics are eerily reminiscent of Wilson’s time in college.

  • Wilson was barely recruited. Part of this had to do with his multi-sport obsession, similar to Herbert up until the time he quit basketball and baseball.
  • Wilson being under-recruited had nothing to do with what he was doing on the field. Herbert and Wilson were both dominant high school quarterbacks but they got few offers. Wilson chose NC State over Duke. Herbert jumped at his dream offer to say “sorry” to Montana State.
  • Wilson was fantastic as a freshman, throwing 17 touchdowns and one interception. Similar to Herbert’s 19/4.
  • Wilson then took a step forward as a sophomore starter, but then a step backwards in his junior campaign: his completion% was only 58.4 (lower than Herbert’s junior season) and his Y/A dipped all the way to 6.8. Wilson and Herbert both saw their career-high in interceptions come as they were juniors.
  • In spite of this, Wilson improved NC State to a 9-4 team in his junior season. Herbert led the Ducks to a 9-4 season during his junior year.
  • They both had huge decisions to make going into their senior years. Herbert chose to return to school and forego the draft. Meanwhile, Wilson was being pushed out of the job by the Badgers and wanted to play one more season as a college QB before potentially having to flip his commitment to a baseball contract he had signed. Eventually he transferred to Wisconsin.
  • Both Oregon and Wisconsin were seen as potential powerhouses with solid veteran QBs going into those seasons. Oregon opened Herbert’s senior season ranked 11th. Wisconsin opened Wilson’s senior season ranked 11th.
  • Wilson’s first loss as a senior was 37-31 to 15th-ranked Michigan State when the Spartans scored with 0 seconds left. Herbert’s first loss as a senior was 27-21 when the Tigers scored with 9 seconds left.
  • Wilson’s second loss as a senior was 33-29 to an Ohio State team that had tripped to 5-3 at that point in the season. Herbert’s second loss as a senior was 31-28 to an Arizona State team that was only 6-5. Both QBs had to lead their teams to near-comebacks that day, facing late deficits.
  • Wilson rallied the Badgers to five straight wins, the last of which was avenging the painful loss to Michigan State for the Big 10 championship. Herbert beat the Utes in the Pac-12 championship and avenged his painful loss to them the year before.
  • Oregon went to the Rose Bowl last season and beat Wisconsin. Wilson led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in 2011 and beat Oregon.

Wilson finished ninth in the Heisman voting that year even though he had thrown 33 touchdowns, four interceptions, 10.1 Y/A, and was literally a couple of moments away from taking Wisconsin to the national championship. He still got them to the Rose Bowl.

The Resume

Herbert’s season ended up like this:

286-of-428, 66.8%, 3,471 yards, 32 touchdowns, six interceptions, 8.1 Y/A, four rushing touchdowns

He led Oregon to the Rose Bowl and got no Heisman votes at all. Jalen Hurts posted worse passing statistics for an Oklahoma program setup for passing success, and finished second in the Heisman voting. Not undeservingly so, Hurts also rushed for 20 touchdowns and won plenty of games, but Herbert surprisingly was left off. It may not have bothered him as much as it may have bothered him if he was a former five-star recruit though and I think staying under the radar has been great for Herbert, if anything.

“I think I remember telling you, maybe I step in my junior or senior year and get a couple snaps,” Herbert recalled during a stroll down memory lane with The Register-Guard. “I never envisioned what was going to happen. It’s been so much fun these past four years.

“It’s crazy to think about all the things that have happened and where we are today.”

It also seemed like Herbert had been plenty responsible for seeing Oregon through the Willie Taggart years without too much collateral damage left in his wake as they transitioned to the Cristobal years.

“The only thing that kind of held us together was each other,” Herbert said of the tight-knit group of upperclassmen. “We kind of looked to each other and said, ‘The only thing that has remained constant is us. It can go two ways, we can come together and we can fix this or it can go just like the way it’s been going.’

It feels like the same kind of sentiment that Lane Johnson had of Herbert as a high school junior going into his senior campaign. An “I trust this guy to lead his teammates without me having to butt in” kind of thing.

Herbert went to Oregon as an unheralded quarterback recruit who beat out several other quarterbacks to become an elite starting Pac-12 quarterback relative to all other true freshman starting quarterbacks in conference history. He survived the firing of the coach who recruited him, then survived the potential nightmare Taggart scenario, where he opened a five-way competition in 2017, which Herbert won again. Though his numbers dipped as a junior, the Ducks were winning again and he deserved a lot of credit for those wins. Much like in high school, he sacrificed individual opportunities for the greater good and returned to Oregon over becoming a top-10 draft pick, at which point he came within a few plays of getting them into the CFP and still helped them win their third Rose Bowl of the decade with some of the best statistics in the country even though he, unlike Tua, was not working with many future NFL players on his offense.

What did I leave out?

Herbert could have been the sixth overall pick to the Giants instead of Daniel Jones (a player who, like Wilson, was recruited to play football by Duke), but he was only risking and not gaining when he went back to school. At least as far as his draft stock was considered. Herbert likely had a better resume in 2020 than 2019 though and I’ll talk about that in part three.