LOS ANGELES — Mario Cristobal took a moment to exhale during lunch Wednesday.
The Pac-12 media day event was a chance for Oregon’s first-year coach to pause and enjoy the position he is in.
“It really hasn’t sunk in until, I guess maybe today,” Cristobal said of landing his high-profile job last December. “Because everything else is so fast-paced, so nonstop. It’s been insane.”
Looking across the table at Justin Herbert, who has grown comfortable in the spotlight and let his lengthier hair down after two turbulent seasons for the Ducks, provided a sense of calm for Cristobal.
Oregon may have been picked to finish third in the North Division in the Pac-12 preseason media poll, but the starting quarterback is prepared to lead the program back to prominence.
“What about the hair?” Cristobal said of Herbert’s new look. “I was afraid someone was going to kidnap him out here in Hollywood and make him an actor or something. ...
“He’s transformed his body. He’s committed to being excellent in everything he does.”
Herbert, who is listed at 6-foot-6, 233 pounds on Oregon’s roster, said he actually weighs 240 pounds.
That's what working out with standout defensive lineman Jalen Jelks in the offseason will do.
"It was kind of an oddball type of thing. You don’t usually have the defensive end and the quarterback lifting together, but he was getting stronger, so it worked out," said Jelks, who represented Oregon's defense. "It’s surprising. I was thinking about him (playing) at defensive end for a couple plays. Herbie is a good guy."
Two years after arriving on campus from Sheldon High, Herbert is now being described as a Heisman Trophy candidate and future first-round NFL pick.
“It’s an honor for sure,” Herbert said of notoriety. “I try not to let it take too much away from the team. I kind of think about those guys, and they deserve my best and I expect the best from them. So I’m trying to make it all about the team.”
Herbert and the other upperclassmen are playing for their third coach in as many seasons.
After getting thrown into the starting lineup midway through the 2016 season by Mark Helfrich, Herbert was off to a fast start for Willie Taggart in 2017 before a fractured collarbone interrupted the fun.
But with the hiring of Cristobal and the retention of key assistants, including offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, Oregon enters the 2018 season with some stability and momentum.
“I don’t think we’ve really had a staff that has contributed this much actually into the players,” Jelks said. “I feel like they’ve bought into the process a lot more, as well as the young guys. Having the coaches and the young guys on the same page, I feel like is going to help the older guys a lot.”
The Ducks will get to play the two teams picked ahead of them in the division, Pac-12 favorite Washington and defending North champion Stanford, at Autzen Stadium.
Before looking ahead to Cristobal’s first season in charge of the program, the team had to rewind the tape of the disappointing loss to Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl and dissect what went wrong.
“We definitely did not play as well as we would have liked,” Herbert said. “We had a game plan going in but just didn’t execute. That’s something we’ll take into consideration, we’ll learn from it, and that’s on everyone’s mind like it has been on my mind for the last seven months.
“I’m just excited to get back out there week one and get back to playing.”
Herbert will be playing behind a veteran offensive line and with Tony Brooks-James behind him trying to replace Royce Freeman as the featured back.
The junior signal-caller said wide receivers Dillon Mitchell, Johnny Johnson and Brenden Schooler didn’t miss a single throwing session over the summer.
Oregon’s offense will continue to run an uptempo spread attack while also trying to make Cristobal happy by manhandling opponents at the line of scrimmage with size and strength.
“Coach Cristobal loves to kind of pound the ball down the middle, he’s a big fan of the run game,” Herbert said. “That’s something they do at Alabama really well. Hopefully, we’ll see that at Oregon.”
For the first time since 2014 when DeForest Buckner, Alex Balducci and Arik Armstead anchored a strong front seven, the Ducks believe they have a defense capable of doing its part to win a championship.
Nose tackle Jordon Scott, linebacker Troy Dye and Jelks are among the best players in the Pac-12 at their respective positions.
“It’s good to have big expectations because you know what you have to fulfill,” Jelks said.
Oregon has added Bryan Addison, a dynamic recruit who was originally headed to UCLA, to the roster. The incoming freshman has already been cleared and will compete at cornerback and possibly wide receiver.
“Really exciting. A tremendous blessing,” Cristobal said of Addison choosing the Ducks over Arizona State, Nebraska and Washington on Tuesday. “I know he’s got a lot of friends on the football team already, so I think that part played a major role in him ending up at Oregon. We’re thrilled to have him.”
Cristobal announced that reserve wide receiver Malik Lovette will leave the program as a graduate transfer and offensive lineman Logan Bathke has medically retired. The coach did not have an update on freshman receiver Jalen Hall, who returned home to Los Angeles after participating in one spring practice.
When asked what concerns he has entering fall camp, Cristobal maintained his confident, relaxed composure.
“I’m not wired that way in terms of looking at something as a concern,” he said. “I think every team has its so-called warts. Everybody has imperfections and things to work on. I feel like we have more positives than things we have to remedy.”