Reluctant Pac-12 celebrity Justin Herbert will step back into the spotlight Wednesday at the conference’s football media day.
The 6-foot-6, 233-pound senior will be one of the names on the event marquee in Hollywood, where only two other teams — Stanford (K.J. Costello) and Arizona (Khalil Tate) — are bringing quarterbacks.
Oregon enters the season with Herbert, a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate and projected NFL first-round pick, leading the program’s most talented cast since the Ducks played in the College Football Playoff championship game five seasons ago.
There will be pressure on offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo, entering his second season calling the plays, to make sure the Ducks take full advantage of Herbert’s rare skill set, as the 2014 team did with Marcus Mariota.
Arroyo isn’t giving his star pupil special treatment, just some stability.
“When you’ve got Justin, I don’t think of it probably like many on the outside. I see it as the second year of someone in our system,” Arroyo said of the benefits of returning a four-year starter during a recent interview with The Register-Guard. “It’s easy to lose track of that, and I get that because it’s just the way it is.
“There’s a reason we’re going to be successful, and that’s having efficiency and guys that get it and have been in the same system and heard the same dialogue.”
Herbert played for three different head coaches during his first three years at Oregon, but Arroyo will be his position coach for the third consecutive season.
The Ducks’ offense will mesh the OC-QB continuity with a dominant offensive line, three sophomore running backs who combined for 1,856 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, a veteran tight end group and an influx of talent to upgrade the wide receiver positions.
“I’m happy for him that he gets to hear the same voice,” Arroyo said of Herbert. “I think a second year, however many reps we got together in the system last year, now you’re going into really the 400th days in the calendar being together. It’s pretty cool. It’s not 10 years in, it’s not five years in, but it’s another year, and he’s already reaping the benefits of that.
“Something as simple as summer and spring, hearing the same stuff, you add that to the fact that he has some really good talent in regards to what he can do on the field, that’s great. Then you have to get the right pieces around him, too, because he can’t do it all himself.”
That was evident last season when Herbert’s completion percentage dipped from 67% in 2018 when Willie Taggart was calling the plays to 59.4%.
The simple explanation is that Herbert’s targets dropped 52 passes. He still threw for 3,151 yards with 29 touchdowns and eight interceptions as a junior.
“It was glaringly obvious that there has to be a sense of ownership,” Cristobal said recently when asked about the drops. “Those guys know that our team will go as far as each position group goes. In terms of the offense, our passing game will go as far as that wide receiver group and the quarterbacks take ownership and elevating the standard of play as it relates to practice, drill work, meetings and everything else.
“Precision and timing in the passing game is everything. That requires attention to detail and discipline. We see that and we see it in big spurts. It’s time. They know that for us to be the great offense we need to be, that has to be a huge piece."
Dillon Mitchell, currently preparing for training camp with the Minnesota Vikings, led the Pac-12 with 1,184 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns. Arroyo expects a more balanced passing attack this fall with the return of Jaylon Redd, Brenden Schooler and Johnny Johnson and the addition of Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson and a list of promising freshmen, including spring practice participants Mycah Pittman and Josh Delgado.
“They’re really special guys,” Herbert said of the competition after the spring game. “Juwan and Mycah and Josh, they’re guys that go make plays and it’s a good problem to have to have so many of those guys on your team.”
Fans spoiled by so many explosive plays at Autzen Stadium during the Chip Kelly era, Mariota’s Heisman Trophy season and even the Vernon Adams experience were not always entertained by the more plodding approach last season.
Arroyo seemingly made all the right chess moves during wins over a ranked California team and eventual Pac-12 champion Washington. The Ducks were also out of sync and unprepared for the start of key road games at Washington State and Arizona.
The 7-6 victory over Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl was perhaps a fitting ending to an uneven season.
Oregon’s offense, which averaged 32.3 points (second) and 426.9 yards (third) in Pac-12 games, was good enough to win nine games but needs to take a big step forward to live up to greater expectations in 2019.
Cristobal, a former offensive lineman who will never apologize for patiently trying to establish the running game between the tackles, is confident Arroyo is the right offensive coordinator to make the most of this opportunity to win big before Herbert rides off into the sunset.
“The best part about Marcus, and really the entire staff, is everyone wants to get better,” Cristobal said. “Obviously, we took some really positive steps last year, and no one is satisfied. We know that we are going to continue to evolve and grow. Marcus is a great colleague, a great competitor, a great teacher and motivator. He does a great job recruiting.
“He’s really excited with some of these things he was able to bring to the table last year a little bit, and now been able to continue to evolve and grow the offense throughout spring and the course of the summer.”