SAN FRANCISCO — Justin Herbert is Oregon’s version of the Pied Piper.
The Duck-catcher of Eugene.
Since Herbert announced his decision to return for his senior season instead of cashing in an NFL draft lottery ticket this spring, two of his standout offensive linemen have followed the superstar quarterback’s lead.
During interviews here in preparation for Monday’s Redbox Bowl at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., both center Jake Hanson and left guard Shane Lemieux have said they will return to protect Herbert in 2019.
Right tackle Calvin Throckmorton, another redshirt junior, previously declared his intention to finish what the group started together when the group took their lumps in 2016.
“I just couldn’t really turn down the opportunity we have going forward,” Lemieux explained during a news conference Friday in downtown San Francisco.
If junior Dillon Mitchell, the Pac-12’s leading receiver, decides to exhaust his eligibility, the Ducks will return all 11 offensive players projected to start in the bowl game against Michigan State.
“It’s something that you always strive for,” a beaming Cristobal said. “You want to stack and layer your program from a recruiting standpoint, a personnel acquisition standpoint, where you could have a junior- and senior-laden offense and defense. And now we have that opportunity.
“It really bodes well for (Herbert), for us, the team, the future of the program. A lot of things have really fallen into place with that announcement.”
Herbert, who had been projected as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the NFL draft and a top-10 pick, refused to discuss his reasoning for staying in school during a post-practice media scrum Thursday at San Francisco City College.
Cristobal didn’t want to disclose how long he knew the Ducks’ coveted 6-foot-6, 237-pound signal-caller had decided not to turn professional, but the timing of the announcement was orchestrated by Herbert.
“Obviously a tremendous explosion of just emotion and gratitude for him, his family, and their trust in us, confidence in us to continue his development,” Cristobal said. “He has set some really high goals and standards and expectations for himself. It’s our obligation to make sure he achieves that and reaches those expectations.
“And a big part of it, of course, is his teammates in the program and everything he grew up loving and believing in.”
As an impressionable teenager, Herbert watched Marcus Mariota put the NFL on hold after playing injured late in the 2013 season. A November loss to Stanford knocked the team out of the BCS national title race and another loss to Arizona pushed the Ducks out of the Rose Bowl picture.
Mariota won the Heisman Trophy and led the program to the inaugural College Football Playoff title game in 2014.
“What I have come to realize, though, is that nothing could pull me away from the opportunities that we have in front of us,” Herbert said in his statement.
Oregon’s offense will have the talent and experience, including a combined 152 career starts along the offensive line, to at least contend for the Pac-12 championship again next year.
The improving defense could also return eight starters, and the highest-ranked recruiting class in program history is on the way.
“I just came back to when coach Cristobal first got here and really how much we’ve gained a relationship with each other. He’s almost like a best friend to me,” Lemieux said of the factors that went into his decision. “This year we really talked about laying a foundation for where we wanted our program to go. I want to come back in 10 years or so, when we’re winning national championships every year and (have) turned into this dynasty like Alabama or others schools, and say we started that. …
“Justin staying, that changed a lot.”