Oregon Ducks

Burmeister is the answer in Herbert's absence

EUGENE - Oregon freshman quarterback Braxton Burmeister must live up to his billing as the No. 7 dual-threat quarterback in the nation coming out of high school if the Ducks are going to survive life without sophomore Justin Herbert, out at least a month with a fractured collarbone. 

It's that simple. The problem is, that's a tough ask. 

Asking any freshman quarterback, regardless of perceived skillset, to perform at an elite level in year one is for the most part unrealistic. 

Few have met such expectations. Equally as unrealistic is asking redshirt senior Taylor Alie to suddenly deliver as a starting quarterback when last year he was moved to wide receiver because he had struggled playing quarterback at this level. 

So, as the Ducks (4-1, 1-1 PAC-12) embark on this journey without Herbert starting on Saturday with No. 11 Washington State (5-0 2-0) at home, they do so with an experienced but limited senior and a talented but promising freshman. 

What could possibly go wrong?

The solution is to shrink the playbook as much as needed and get Burmeister onto the field either as the starter or as the backup. 

But make sure Burmeister plays. He is the more talented of the two. Let that flourish. At the very least, he will have gained that much more experience moving forward rather than burning his redshirt to play backup to a guy in Alie who is only playing quarterback out of necessity. 

Maybe, Oregon gets lucky and Burmeister plays like Herbert did last year when he started his first game at this exact same point in the season. 

We already know what Alie, great person by all accounts who worked his tail off to earn a scholarship after walking on at his hometown university, is all about as a quarterback. 

Former UO coach Mark Helfrich told us during the spring of 2016 when he moved Alie and former quarterback Jeff Lockie, the backups to Vernon Adams Jr. in 2015, to wide receiver behind transfer Dakota Prukop, 4-star recruit Travis Jonsen and 3-star recruit Terry Wilson Jr.  

The move stated clearly that Alie was, at best, the No. 5 quarterback on the team behind two players who had never taken college snaps and Lockie, who certainly didn’t perform well in place of Adams. 

Herbert joined the Ducks in the fall of 2016 making Alie essentially No. 6. 

By the spring of 2017, Alie moved up to pseudo No. 5 behind Herbert, Jonsen, Wilson and Burmeister, but remained at wide receiver. 

Wilson elected to transfer during spring drills, which led to Alie once again receiving quarterback reps. When Jonsen left the program over the summer that put Alie into a competition with Burmeister for the backup role. 

But let’s be clear. Just because a bunch of dominoes fell thrusting Alie into the backup role, and now the likely starter, doesn’t mean that he is your typical backup in waiting. He is not. He is in that position by default. So if Alie starts against WSU, one shouldn't expect miracles. 

Burmeister, however, is here because, unlike Alie, the freshman was recruited to play this position at this level. 

Oregon co-offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo insisted this week that the team's game plan wouldn't shift without Herbert moving forward. Arroyo said he has worked with both Alie and Burmeister to always be ready

“We’ve made the room very aware, and I’ve been doing this a long time, that all it takes is one play, and there it is,” Arroyo said. “That’s to fruition and so we move forward.”

Yet, we saw the game plan shift against Cal when Herbert went down at the end of the first quarter. He had passed for 86 yards on 7-of-8 passing to that point. Alie threw for 41 yards on 9 of 13 attempts with one interception before going down with a concussion in the fourth quarter. 

Burmeister completed one pass for four yards in the final minutes. 

Those numbers represent a strategic shift of seismic proportions.

This week, however, the staff will have a chance to formulate game plans that best fit Alie and Burmeister against WSU's defense, ranked third and allowing 20.2 points per game. Advanced preparation will also help against the continuation of the heart of the schedule with games at No. 24 Stanford, UCLA, home against Utah and at Washington up next.  

If Herbert is fortunate, he will return in time for a home game against Arizona on Nov. 18. 

Preparation should improve the overall production for both Alie and Burmeister but neither will come close to matching Herbert's NFL-caliber passing abilities. 

The extreme variable in all of this is that Burmeister is a superior runner to both Herbert and Alie. Plus, the freshman has a live arm.

Burmeister rushed for 3,449 yards and 68 touchdowns while at La Jolla Country Day High School in La Jolla, Calif.  That's in addition to the 11,512 yards and 127 touchdowns he threw for with just 33 interceptions. 

Those are video game numbers, and although some have questioned the strength of the league he played in, the bottom line is that he had the skills enough to receive scholarship offers from a couple of dozen programs including Washington, Florida and Arizona. 

UO coach Willie Taggart said Burmeister has come a long way since joining the team in time for spring drills last March. 

"He has a better understanding of the offense and what we're trying to do," Taggart said. 

Burmeister has displayed, according to Taggart, greater confidence as his knowledge of the offense has increased. 

“It’s allowed him to go out there and play fast and execute," Taggart added. 

Arroyo said that Herbert’s experience is the top asset lost when he went down. 

"You can't put a price on that," Arroyo said. "That's huge."

Arroyo said the starter is not clear and will be determined after a week of competition. 

There is a chance, Arroyo said, that UO could play both, something Oregon did with Kellen Clemens and Jason Fife (2002-2003) and Dennis Dixon and Brady Leaf (2005-2006). 

Whatever the plan is, Burmeister must be a huge part of it. Start him. Or, at least play him a lot. He came to Oregon as the potential quarterback of the future. He must deliver now. Otherwise, Oregon will be in serious trouble until Herbert returns.