I’ll bet Justin Herbert looks good in a tux.
The last time he wore one, I assume, was the Sheldon High senior prom. If things go well this season, you could picture him being fitted again for the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York.
Hopefully that coat comes with long tails.
Herbert showed off his NFL arm as No. 24 Oregon opened its season with a 58-24 victory against Bowling Green. His passes zipped and whistled and squeezed through narrow windows. You saw why Herbert is regarded as the potential No. 1 pick if he chooses to declare for the draft after his junior season.
You also saw why Oregon is such a wildcard in the Pac-12. A quarterback of Herbert’s caliber gives the Ducks tantalizing possibilities. But if he doesn’t get more help, there’s a chance that potential will go to waste.
Oregon’s best chance for success is to grab Herbert’s coattails and hold on for dear life. Based on what happened Saturday, holding on could be one of the Ducks’ biggest challenges.
Receivers coach Michael Johnson mentioned midway through camp that Oregon’s wideouts were struggling to haul in Herbert’s NFL-caliber throws. After one game, you can see what he was saying.
On the Ducks’ first series, Herbert threw a perfect bomb that clanked off the hands of Johnny Johnson. His next pass was a fastball dropped by Jaylon Redd.
The offense settled down eventually, and Herbert connected with his receivers on some big plays. An 83-yard screen pass to Taj Griffin gave the Ducks enough cushion to insert backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister with 5:54 remaining in the third quarter.
If that had been the end of Herbert’s day, the final numbers would have looked pretty tidy. But when Bowling Green scored to pull within 51-24, the Ducks got nervous and put Herbert back in the game.
Herbert threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter. One glanced off Redd’s hands. The other came when Redd broke off a slant route, one play after dropping a potential touchdown.
“We can’t get cut off inside when we’re running any kind of inside route,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “We got cut off right there, and the ball was already gone.”
Herbert finished 10-for-21 for 281 yards and five touchdowns. It could have been 15-for-21 for 300-plus and another TD or two.
It might sound like nitpicking, but when you’re talking about the Heisman Trophy, those extra completions could be the difference between standing on the stage and staying home. Against a better team, they could have been the difference between a win and loss.
Cristobal didn’t call out Oregon’s receivers. Herbert didn’t either. In fact, Herbert made a point to demonstrate his trust by repeatedly throwing into tight windows and counting on his receivers to make a play.
At times, they did. Johnson caught a ball and dragged a defender 7 yards into the end zone. Redd hauled in a beautifully thrown pass that hit him just before his toes touched the back of the end zone. Herbert wasn’t afraid to go back to a receiver who’d dropped a pass, and several times his confidence was rewarded.
“I’m playing with no fear with those guys,” Herbert said. “They’ve worked really hard and I don’t think they get the credit they deserve.”
That’s exactly how a quarterback should play. Asking Herbert to dink and dunk would be like asking AC/DC to unplug their guitar amps. The Ducks need Herbert to be taking shots, and they need his receivers to elevate their games accordingly.
At Oregon, we’ve seen what a transcendent quarterback can do to lift an entire program. The 2014 Ducks didn’t have a ton of NFL draft picks. Their coach, Mark Helfrich, didn’t go on to great success. But they had Marcus Mariota, and that was enough to put them in the national title game.
Cristobal stands to benefit in a similar way from the quarterback he inherited. We haven’t seen enough to make any real assessments of his coaching abilities. Overall, he seems like a capable guy who lucked into a quarterback who could start right now for a handful of NFL teams.
Oregon doesn’t need Cristobal to be an X’s and O’s genius. The Ducks don’t need their defense to pitch shutouts or their running backs to go wild. They don’t need their receivers to make circus catches and win every jump ball.
Oregon just needs everyone to do their jobs. If the Ducks can do that, they can go a long way just by grabbing the coattails of their quarterback.
All they have to do is hold on.