December was a confusing time for the Oregon football program.
Willie Taggart made a visit to Tyler Shough’s home in Chandler, Ariz., on Dec. 4, in the midst of reports that he was being targeted by Florida State.
Less than 24 hours later, Taggart informed athletic director Rob Mullens and the Ducks that he was indeed packing his bags for Tallahassee after only one season as Oregon’s coach.
Shough stuck with his commitment to the program after Mario Cristobal was promoted on Dec. 8 and Marcus Arroyo was retained as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
The 6-foot-4, 202-pound quarterback signed with Oregon on Dec. 20 and is participating in the team’s spring practice ahead of his true freshman season.
“It was definitely weird, it had a weird vibe to it,” Shough recalled of Taggart’s final recruiting visit representing the Ducks. “I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen. He was definitely promoting Oregon at the time. I read the whole news (of him leaving) was already going out. Whatever his decision, I supported it.
“As long as I knew coach Arroyo and coach Cristobal were staying, I was 100 percent with it. I was just glad they’re still here and we’ve got everything going.”
Shough enrolled at Oregon in January and has been soaking up life as a college student while also adjusting to the speed of play with the Ducks.
The four-star recruit has embraced the chance to learn the ropes behind starter Justin Herbert.
“I’ve been asking him about plays. What do you think about this coverage? Asking him what classes he’s taking. He’s definitely been through it,” Shough said. “I definitely look up to him, trying to (do) what he has done here. It’s definitely been great coming here early and learning from him and all the other quarterbacks.”
Two years ago, Herbert was playing baseball at Sheldon High instead of graduating early to get a head start on the 2016 season. The gifted 6-5 three-sport standout still took over as the Ducks’ starter that season as a true freshman.
“It feels like I just got here, really, to be honest,” Herbert said. “I think I’m seeing a lot of the guys that I came in here with and we’re kind of the older groups. It has been interesting to see.”
Herbert, now a junior, has passed for 3,919 yards with 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions over 17 games. The first-team academic all-American could emerge as an early Heisman Trophy candidate if Oregon takes advantage of a favorable September schedule.
“He’s a reserved yet strong leader who has kind of a magnetic personality,” Cristobal said of Herbert before Tuesday’s practice, the 12th of the spring. “We kind of like the guy.”
Braxton Burmeister, who struggled against Pac-12 defenses after being forced into action when Herbert suffered a broken clavicle last season, is competing with Shough for the No. 2 spot.
“Tyler is a very talented guy. Obviously him and Braxton are going toe-to-toe, knocking each other back and forth to try to fight to see who gets into the game first,” Cristobal said. “Tyler is really talented, he’s really smart. What stands out most about him in the offseason is he’s a relentless competitor. He is not afraid to jump in there drill to drill. …
“He doesn’t flinch when he’s challenged. You can coach him hard, which you have to with a quarterback because their mistakes can change the whole momentum of a game.”
Shough and Burmeister both had trouble moving the No. 2 offense against the No. 1 defense during the open scrimmage in Portland. Cristobal said the efficiency in the passing game was better during last Saturday’s closed scrimmage at Autzen Stadium.
The two backups are expected to get equal reps during the spring game this Saturday.
“Both Braxton and Tyler have really shown that they’re ready to compete,” Cristobal said. “They are making plays, and we are putting them in tough situations. They’ve come through and performed. They’ve still got to fix a few things.”
Burmeister, who’s listed at 6-1, made five starts as a true freshman. He rushed for three touchdowns but only passed for 330 yards with two touchdowns and six interceptions.
“For sure, I thought I was going to redshirt. Some things happened, and I’m grateful for the opportunity, though,” Burmeister said earlier this spring. “Just getting game reps and game experience is something that helps a ton. Playing live football, in practice we’re not live, so it definitely helped a lot.”
A redshirt is also an option for Shough, but all of the quarterbacks on the roster realize they have to be ready at any moment. The Ducks’ 4-1 start was turned upside down after Herbert and Taylor Alie went down with injuries during last season’s home win over California.
“Braxton and I, we’re great friends, we hang out all the time,” Shough said. “We know we’re just making each other better. We’re sharing reps right now. We just do the best we can each practice, hope for the best. …
“He does some things I can’t, I do somethings he can’t. So we just try to learn from each other and get better overall.”
During his senior season of high school, Shough passed for 3,071 yards with 30 touchdowns and five interceptions. He was rated as the state of Arizona’s No. 1 overall recruit and the No. 94 overall prospect in the 2018 class.
“The difference now is we’ve had a year of continuity in the system. So Braxton and Justin have had a chance to see it and hear it, and I think that helps a guy like Tyler,” Arroyo said of transitioning the freshman into the system. “Because Tyler can bounce some things off them and see it. There’s (more) depth in the room as far as knowledge.”
Shough has a similar build to Herbert, although it’s easy to tell which signal-caller has spent two extra years in the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex’s weight room.
“When he first got here, Justin kind of looked similar to (Shough),” junior wide receiver Dillon Mitchell said. “We were all kind of skinny. But Tyler does remind me of Justin a little bit.”
A year after quarterbacks Travis Jonsen and Terry Wilson opted to transfer out of the program, Shough is taking advantage of the extra snaps and hoping eventually to be the heir to Herbert.
“At first he’s kind of quiet. He’s like a quiet, humble kid,” Shough said of Herbert. “Once you get to know him he kind of opens up more, you can ask him questions and stuff like that. That’s kind of been the process of trying to get to know him better. …
“I’m just a student of what he does. Obviously, that’s who I want to emulate when I get further into this Oregon program.”
Follow Ryan Thorburn on Twitter @rgduckfootball. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.