Justin Herbert spent Christmas relaxing at home in Eugene with his parents, Mark and Holly, and his two brothers, Mitchell and Patrick.
Then on Wednesday morning, the Ducks’ reticent superstar provided some extra holiday cheer for the extended Oregon football family.
Herbert, who was considered the top quarterback prospect in this cycle by many scouts and projected as a top-10 pick with a handful of iconic NFL teams in desperate need of a franchise quarterback, studied the NFL’s College Advisory Committee report provided by Oregon before making the consequential life decision on his own.
“The University of Oregon has been a special place to me for as long as I can remember. Words will never be able to express my feelings of gratitude toward the people that have built and maintain our program,” Herbert said in a prepared statement. “What I have come to realize, though, is that nothing could pull me away from the opportunities that we have in front of us. As we prepare for our bowl game, I would like to ensure that there are no distractions outside of this game. My commitment to my teammates, our coaches, Duck fans, and the University of Oregon has never been stronger.
“I’ll be returning to the University of Oregon for my senior year. Go Ducks!”
Denver Broncos general manager/president John Elway, New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman and Miami Dolphins executive vice president Mike Tannebaum were among the NFL executives who attended Oregon games during season to see the 6-foot-6, 237-pound Herbert up close and personal.
Instead of preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine and beginning a lucrative professional career, Herbert will try to get the Ducks back in contention for the College Football Playoff.
> Austin Meek: Justin Herbert's return ups the ante for Oregon in 2019
Oregon, which concludes coach Mario Cristobal’s first season against Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl next Monday at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., opens the 2019 campaign against Auburn on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“I wouldn’t be surprised. I mean, I know him well,” junior wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, who leads the Pac-12 with 1,114 receiving yards, said earlier this season of Herbert likely putting the NFL on hold. “That’s his decision at the end of the day. I know he has a lot of things going for him coming back next year, but that’s a decision that he has to make.
“In my eyes and everybody else’s eyes here, he’s the No. 1 guy.”
Herbert has completed 59.6 percent of his passes for 2,985 yards with 28 touchdowns and eight interceptions during his junior season. He has thrown a touchdown pass in 27 consecutive games, the nation’s longest active streak.
The former Sheldon High three-sport star currently ranks third in school history for career touchdown passes (62), third in completion percentage (62.7) and sixth in passing yards (6,904).
“He’s got a skillset that’s pretty special, pretty rare,” Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, who was the interim offensive coordinator and play-caller for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014, said of his signal-caller earlier this season. “Having been there and been through those drafts, he’s got a skillset that’s going to be comparable to as good as anybody.”
Growing up rooting for the Ducks and attending games with his late grandfather, Rich Schwab, a wide receiver on Oregon’s 1963 Sun Bowl team, Herbert watched intently when Marcus Mariota decided to return for his redshirt junior season.
During the historic 2014 campaign, Mariota became Oregon’s only Heisman Trophy winner and led the program to the national championship game before being selected No. 2 overall in the draft by the Tennessee Titans.
“It’s an honor for sure,” Herbert said early in the season when he was being mentioned as a Heisman candidate and projected to also follow Mariota’s footsteps as a top-five pick. “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 was recently named the academic all-America team member of the year for Division I football by the College Sports Information Directors of America. The biology major is carrying a 4.06 grade-point average and is the first Oregon football player to earn the national award since quarterback Bill Musgrave in 1990.
“It hasn’t been easy,” Herbert said during a ceremony at the Jaqua Center in April honoring his first-team CoSIDA academic all-American status. “I think I’ve done a good job of figuring out what works for me. I’ve found a schedule and ways that I can manage both football and school.”
Cale Millen, the son of former Washington Huskies and NFL quarterback Hugh Millen, plans to enroll early and be on campus in January to begin studying Herbert’s every move.
“There may be a sense Oregon could really compete for the national title if (Herbert) were to return,” Hugh Millen said before his son signed with the Ducks last week as part of the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history. “There’s a lot for him to think about. Peyton Manning chose to come back for his senior year, and I remember reading … ‘Peyton Manning is the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft if he decides to come this year, Peyton Manning is the No. 1 pick next year or any year.’”
Herbert’s stock should continue to rise with another strong season, but the risk of injury is obvious. He suffered a broken leg during his junior year at Sheldon and a fractured collarbone last year at Oregon.
After taking a shot to the helmet at the goal-line late in the fourth quarter of the Ducks’ loss at Arizona on Oct. 27, Herbert was placed in concussion protocol. He was also knocked out of the Civil War victory at Oregon State on Nov. 23 with a “deep” shoulder bruise.
“I hear everyone saying he’s a top-10 pick this year or next year, regardless. I think he’s a great player. He looks a little quiet,” former Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. said when asked about Herbert’s looming decision. “He’s got the Marcus Mariota size, speed, arm strength. I would like for him to stay one more year so he can like grow and get better and get more reps.
“At the same time, if the top 10 is calling his name, boy better go get that money.”
Baker Mayfield’s rookie deal with the Cleveland Browns included $32.68 million in guaranteed compensation.
The other quarterbacks selected in the first round of the 2018 draft — the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold ($30.25 million), the Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen ($21.18 million), the Arizona Cardinals’ Josh Rosen ($17.50 million) and the Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson ($9.47 million) — also received fruitful guaranteed money as part of their rookie contracts.
Chris Miller, another former Sheldon and Oregon quarterback, who was the first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 1987 draft, compared Herbert’s size and arm to Cam Newton’s during fall camp.
“Not to put any pressure on him, but I think if Justin plays the way he’s capable and stays healthy, he can be the number one pick in the NFL draft next year,” Miller said. “I’m really excited for him. And all that being said, he’s an even better young man. He’s very respectful, humble, a tremendous student.
“He’s the type of kid you want your daughter to marry. Pretty special young man.”
Herbert played for Mark Helfrich as a true freshman, Willie Taggart as a sophomore and will now play for Cristobal and Arroyo in back-to-back seasons as an upperclassman.
With the return of a veteran offensive line and the influx of young talent at the skill positions, Herbert should be able to help Oregon improve upon an attack that ranks second in the Pac-12 in scoring (37.2 ppg) and third in total offense (445.9 ypg).
“He can make every throw on the field,” Michigan State linebacker Joe Bachie told the Detroit Free-Press when asked about preparing for Herbert. “You understand why he’s a first-round pick, for sure.”
In a news release, Cristobal said Herbert wanted to go public with his decision before the team reconvened in the Bay Area for practice on Thursday so the focus will be on the Ducks and Spartans.
“We couldn’t be more excited for Justin to return for his senior season,” Cristobal said. “He is a special talent on the field, but, more importantly, a special person and leader off the field. Being a native of Oregon, Justin wanted to make sure the announcement was made here in Eugene before we left for the bowl game. As a two-time academic All-American, he embodies what we want our culture to be and is a great representative of our university and community.
“We are fortunate to have him in our program.”
Herbert’s younger brother, Patrick, will join Oregon’s roster as a true freshman tight end in 2019.
“We never wanted Patrick to feel taken for granted, just because we could walk to his house from here,” Cristobal said at his signing day news conference last Wednesday after landing the four-star prospect from Sheldon. “We always made it a point to make it a huge deal. If he wasn’t close to us, he’d be a really hard recruit to get.”
Having a chance to play one more season with Justin Herbert should serve as motivation for the entire roster.
He is the gift that keeps on giving to the Ducks.
“He’s one of those leaders,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. “He’s a model student-athlete.”