Three years ago, Justin Herbert was a baby-faced freshman in a crowded quarterback room.
Walk-on Taylor Alie, who had led Oregon to a Pac-12 road win at Colorado subbing for an injured Vernon Adams, was the Sheldon High graduate expected to be on the field as the incumbent holder and two-point conversion signal-caller.
Terry Wilson was the more touted quarterback prospect in Herbert’s recruiting class entering fall camp. Travis Jonsen was the one who was supposed to push graduate transfer Dakota Prukop for the starting job.
But as Mark Helfrich’s final season started to go south, Herbert was thrown to the wolves — or Dawgs in this case — for the 70-21 drubbing against Washington.
After surviving the early growing pains, showing flashes of brilliance during an injury-plagued season with Willie Taggart and then helping Mario Cristobal win nine games last season, Herbert is arguably the face of the Pac-12 entering the 2019 season.
“Justin is special, and I've noticed that since he stepped on campus,” senior linebacker Troy Dye said. “I mean, the dude doesn't look the part at all. You go up and talk to him and he’s going to be quiet as hell. But he's a funny dude if you get to know him. He's a real genuinely funny guy.
“And I really do love that dude, I’ve got so much respect for him. I’d do anything for that man.”
Growing up in Eugene, Herbert used to be the fan who read all of the preseason hype about Marcus Mariota and then cheered on the Ducks as they delivered a conference title, a Rose Bowl win and an appearance in the national championship game.
Now the 6-foot-6, 237-pound senior is embracing the Ducks’ summer status as the slight North Division favorite and legitimate Pac-12 contender.
“Yeah, it has (come) a long way,” Herbert said of the program during Pac-12 media day on Wednesday in Los Angeles. “We were a bunch of individuals in 2016, and now we’re a team.”
Herbert, a two-time academic all-American, studied the NFL’s College Advisory Committee report after leaving Oregon’s dominant Civil War win over Oregon State with a shoulder injury.
Despite the injury risks, the projected first-round pick couldn’t pass up the most anticipated season for the Ducks since Mariota’s magical last go-round in 2014.
“Yeah, that was an interesting time. It was a tough decision for sure, to be put in (that position) at such a young age,” said Herbert, who announced he was returning before the Redbox Bowl to make sure he didn’t distract from the team’s focus on preparing for Michigan State. “Fortunately, I had such a great support system around me that I was able to make the decision.
“And I truly believe that I made the right decision.”
Herbert leaned on his family, friends and Peyton Manning.
The two-time Super Bowl champion delayed his lucrative NFL career to play his senior season at Tennessee in 1997, the year before Herbert was born.
“Gosh, I’ve kind of rushed through this whole process, you know? I don’t want to be 50 years old and saying, ‘What would college have been like?’” Manning recently recalled in the Tennessean of his thought process at the time. “I’m throwing the injury factor out the window. You can be hurt at any time.”
Herbert also believes the reward of spending another fall at Autzen Stadium will be worth the risk of career-altering injury.
“He gave me the facts,” Herbert said of the conversation with Manning. “He told me how the NFL works, how his experience went. I talked to him about if he would change anything, if he would have done anything differently, and he said he wouldn’t. He knew he made the right decision.”
Oregon’s offensive line, which is one of the nation’s top units, should be able to provide Herbert with some protection.
The preseason all-Pac-12 teams included all five starters — Shane Lemieux (first team), Calvin Throckmorton (first team), Penei Sewell (second team), Jake Hanson (honorable mention) and Dallas Warmack (honorable mention).
“They’re such a great group of guys. I’ve gotten really close with all of them,” Herbert said. “They're exceptional human beings and they work so hard on the field. We’ve put in such great work this offseason, I can’t wait for them to get started.”
Herbert will also benefit from a strong running game with the return of CJ Verdell (1,018 yards, 10 touchdowns), Travis Dye (739 yards, four touchdowns) and goal-line hammer Cyrus Habibi-Likio (36 yards, seven touchdowns).
Darrian Felix is also healthy after being limited to two games last season.
“It’s a great problem to have,” Herbert said of the depth. “They're so well coached and each one of them can do a great job. I have complete trust in all of them — CJ, Travis, Cyrus, and even Darrian Felix is going to have a big year this year.
“They’re athletic guys, and I know they will get the job done.”
Oregon’s tight end competition will also be fierce during fall camp with a healthy Cam McCormick rejoining veterans Jacob Breeland and Ryan Bay atop the depth chart.
A bonus for Herbert in returning is the opportunity to play with his brother, Patrick Herbert, who is now listed at 6-5, 245 pounds on Oregon’s updated roster.
“It would be really cool,” the elder Herbert said of possibly completing passes to the true freshman Herbert this season. “That's not something I've done since high school. So yeah, I know my parents would really appreciate it and they would love to be there for it.”
Herbert threw for 3,151 yards with 29 touchdowns last season, statistics that would have been greatly enhanced if not for 52 dropped passes.
Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson headlines an impressive influx of new wide receiver talent that will compete with familiar faces Brenden Schooler, Johnny Johnson and Jaylon Redd.
Current Minnesota Vikings rookie Dillon Mitchell, who led the Pac-12 in receiving, is the only offensive starter from the Redbox Bowl that did not return.
“Competition helps everyone,” Herbert said. “We have such a competitive, talented receiver group that they’re only making each other better. And that's huge for the program and huge for us.”
Herbert, who was noticeably more comfortable in the spotlight while representing Oregon at Pac-12 media day for the third and final time, will try to write a Hollywood ending to his collegiate story.
The Ducks can thrust their quarterback into the Heisman Trophy race and themselves into the College Football Playoff discussion with a win over Auburn in the opener on Aug. 31 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (4:30 p.m., ABC).
“Things started a little earlier than normal. We've already started watching some film,” Herbert said. “I know everyone is fired up for that showdown. Anytime an SEC and Pac-12 school go at it, it’s a great opportunity for us to represent the Pac-12.”