The former Sheldon High standout, who grew up rooting for Marcus Mariota, is still pinching himself about being UO's starting quarterback
The Justin Herbert story is almost too good to be true.
A hometown kid who grew up cheering for the Ducks from the stands at Autzen Stadium and mimicking Marcus Mariota during high school is now the Oregon quarterback being talked about as a Heisman Trophy candidate and future first-round NFL draft pick.
Even for Herbert — who also carried a 4.06 grade-point average in biology last year and represented the program for the second consecutive season at last week’s Pac-12 media day event in Hollywood — this script doesn’t seem believable.
“I still have to pinch myself,” Herbert said during last Wednesday’s interview barnstorming tour. “A couple years ago I was the one that would go and read all the articles about Marcus.”
In 17 games over the last two seasons, Herbert has completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,919 yards with 34 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Not bad considering the former three-sport standout from Sheldon High was just excited to be on the Ducks’ roster after getting a late scholarship offer from Mark Helfrich.
“It’s something that I never imagined,” Herbert said. “I came to Oregon and was just excited to maybe play a down or two my junior, senior year. I was really just excited to be there.”
During spring practice in 2016, Dakota Prukop, Travis Jonsen and Terry Wilson began competing for the starting position. Veteran quarterbacks Jeff Lockie and Taylor Alie were also on the roster.
Herbert played baseball for the Irish that spring and joined the team during the summer weighing about 40 pounds less than he does now.
Early in fall camp several notable players, including wide receiver Darren Carrington, began raving about the true freshman from Eugene.
Helfrich named Prukop, an experienced graduate transfer from Montana State, the starter.
But after beating out the rest of the field for the No. 2 spot on the depth chart, Herbert knew he had what it took to play at the Pac-12 level.
“I think the first point I realized it was when they had the meeting with me and told me that I was the backup,” Herbert said. “I really had no idea going into it, and it’s a funny story. I’m just glad it worked out and I’m excited to be here.”
After a frustrating three-game losing streak with Prukop running the offense, Herbert was thrown to the Huskies in the middle of the 2016 season.
Herbert, who was the first true freshman quarterback to start at Oregon since 1983, passed for 1,936 yards with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.
But a 4-8 finish, which included embarrassing losses to Washington (70-21), Stanford (52-27) and Oregon State (34-24), cost Helfrich and his staff their jobs.
The Wille Taggart era got off to a 4-1 start last season before Herbert suffered a fractured collarbone and missed five games. The Ducks went 1-4 with another true freshman, Braxton Burmeister, taking the snaps.
Herbert returned to lead Oregon to wins over Arizona and Oregon State for a 7-5 finish to the regular season. That was enough to land Taggart the Florida State job.
“I think we’ve been through a lot actually with the coaching changes,” Herbert said. “We’ve been in situations where adversity struck and someone or something needed to happen. I think we came together and we found out how tough we really were.”
Mario Cristobal will be Oregon’s third head coach in as many seasons.
Fortunately, Herbert was given some good advice early in his career by the greatest player in school history.
“He told me about adversity one time,” Herbert said of Mariota. “It’s not about whether it happens or not. It’s about when and how you react to it. It’s gonna happen and it’s always about how you respond and how you rally the troops.”
When healthy last season, Herbert led the Ducks to a 6-2 record. Oregon averaged 49.1 points and 516.5 yards in the eight games he started.
Cristobal believes the extra muscle his superstar — Herbert’s 6-foot-6 frame now carries about 240 pounds — gained in the weight room and a strong running game will lead to a fruitful season for the Ducks.
Oregon’s first-year coach will have offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo calling the plays from the press box and Herbert serving as an unofficial co-offensive coordinator on the field.
“He’s not a sequential guy, he’s a spatial thinker. He can see it,” Cristobal said of Herbert. “He could see the whole field and recognize exactly where it’s been disguised, where pressure is coming from, where the rotation is going to be, just seeing leverage and whatnot.
“He’s a special guy that is driven and works at it. He likes getting pushed. He allows us to push him and drive him. He’s been a tremendous blessing.”
Last year Taggart teased a bulked up Herbert for frequently walking around with his shirt off, something he denies.
This year Cristobal made a joke about Herbert’s lengthier coiffure during his press conference at the Pac-12 media day event.
Opposing defensive coordinators won’t find anything amusing about preparing to face Oregon’s quarterback.
“It’s not just how he looks,” Cristobal said of Herbert’s dedication to the Ducks' new Alabama-inspired strength and conditioning program. “It’s the mindset that comes with it, the confidence that comes with it. The ability to create a galvanizing effect for the guys in the locker room.”
If Herbert is able to remain healthy throughout the 2018 season, Ducks fans may be pinching themselves.