Justin Herbert is growing up before our eyes. He's maturing, coming out of his shell. Physically, he is considerably larger than the rail thin freshman that flashed elite skills in 2016. He's becoming so comfortable as a leader and a young man that he has the guts to wear his new hairdo - half surfer dude, half mad scientist - with the full confidence that he can pull it off.
All of the above, along with his immense skills and minus the hair, have led to the junior entering this season as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate and a virtual lock to become a future first-round NFL Draft pick as soon as next spring. Herbert already should be considered one of the top 10 most talented quarterbacks to ever play at Oregon.
But let's step back for a second and ask one simple question: What has Herbert truly accomplished at Oregon?
The truthful answer is: Not much at all.
We know Herbert can put up big passing numbers (he became the fastest UO quarterback to reach 3,000 yards passing, doing so in 13 games) and look flashy doing so. What we don't know is if he is a championship-caliber quarterback capable of leading his team to close victories in big games against high-end competition.
What we don't know is if we should actually believe the hype?
--- Not yet a proven winner
Herbert is being praised as if he has already attained elite status when in fact, he is not a proven winner nor should he be considered a superstar. For now, he simply remains a talented passer with a potentially bright future that hasn't accomplished much at the college level.
This is not meant to throw shade Herbert's way. Nobody has hyped Herbert more than myself. During his freshman season I proclaimed that Herbert would be a future Heisman contender and top 10 NFL Draft pick. I've gone so far as to say that he would exit Oregon as the second greatest quarterback in program history behind Marcus Mariota.
Now it's time for Herbert to deliver on all of his promise and get the Ducks (7-6 last season) back on track toward national prominence.
So far, we've seen a lot of sizzle but little in the way of championship substance.
Herbert is just 7-7 in games he started and finished (or at least departed with the outcome no longer in doubt). Only five of those victories have come against Power Five conference teams and just two came against such teams that finished the season with a winning record (Utah went 8-5 in 2016 and Arizona went 7-6 last year).
Think about that for just a second. Herbert has won just two games against winning Power Five teams in two years.
To be fair, it's not Herbert's fault that Oregon's defense was horrid in 2016, which didn't help his chances of winning games. It's also not his fault that last season he missed the toughest five-game stretch the Ducks have faced during the past two seasons because of a broken collarbone.
Herbert went down early during a win over California last season and then missed games against Washington State (9-4), at Stanford (9-5), at UCLA (6-7) home versus Utah (7-6) and at Washington (10-3). The Ducks went 1-4 against that group with freshman Braxton Burmeister at quarterback and were blown out in all four defeats. Sitting out those five games, he said, had a profound impact on him.
"I found out how much football meant to me just watching from the sideline," Herbert said. "I try not to let any day go by that I'm not thankful for it."
Despite some bad luck and poor defensive play, Herbert has had chances to pull out victories that slipped away. Herbert as a freshman failed to engineer wins at California and Oregon State. He did, however, play exceptionally well in the second half at Utah and threw a 17-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone to Darren Carrington Jr. that won the game 30-28.
Last season, Herbert had a couple of opportunities to pull out a victory at Arizona State but couldn't get the ball moving on two drives inside the final minutes. Oregon lost 37-35.
Then there was the Las Vegas Bowl disaster.
A few weeks after his return from the broken collarbone, Herbert had a chance to notch a signature win on his belt at the Las Vegas bowl. But instead, the Ducks lost 38-28 to underdog Boise State while scoring just two offensive touchdowns with one coming in the final two minutes of action to make the game appear closer than it truly was. Herbert threw two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. He also lost a fumble.
--- Searching for that signature win
A knock on Mariota entering the 2014 season was that he had yet to put forth a big win against a strong opponent that required him to play well in the fourth quarter. Part of that was his fault. He was largely responsible for Oregon blowing out teams by the middle of the second quarter. It's difficult to fault a guy for not winning close games when he is the main reason why the team routinely wins in blowout fashion. However, winning championships usually requires a couple of victories in which the quarterback is asked to make big plays down the stretch.
Mariota failed in that area against Stanford in both 2012 and 2013 when national title game appearances were within reach. He also couldn't get the team going in a loss at Arizona in 2013 when the Pac-12 championship remained a possibility following a 26-20 loss at Stanford.
Sure, Mariota led the Ducks to a last minute win over Oregon State in 2013. But, it was Oregon State. He didn't register that true, signature victory until Michigan State, 2014. Oregon trailed 27-18 early in the third quarter before Mariota threw two touchdowns in that quarter and used a 40-yard run in the fourth quarter to help set up a Royce Freeman score that iced the game at 46-27. He also delivered a virtuoso performance at Washington State when he completed 21 of 25 passes for five touchdowns with a struggling offensive line in a 38-31 win.
Lose one of those games and the Ducks wouldn't have reached the national playoffs. Mariota made those two wins happen.
That is something we really haven't seen from Herbert save for the win at Utah in 2016. But, again, nothing was at stake for the Ducks that day. They finished the season 4-8.
--- A dominant leader could get UO to the top
Herbert is good enough to carry the Ducks, despite their flaws, to the Pac-12 title. He will have enough experience and talent around him to take on Washington and Stanford at home, and to get wins at Arizona and Utah. But pulling that off is going to require Herbert to reach another level as a player and as a leader.
He made big strides in the area of becoming a leader last season must to the delight of former coach Willie Taggart. New coach Mario Cristobal says he's seen the same leap in that department.
"It's exponentially growing," Cristobal said. "It hasn't stopped. He's gained more confidence about everything he does. He's obviously a tremendous student. He's well liked by everybody in the building, the community, the state. He's such a driven individual. That's the best way to explain it. He's driven to get better. He's never satisfied. He's very hard on himself. We actually have to kind of pull him off of himself sometimes because he's very critical of himself."
To make Herbert better, Cristobal says the coaching staff pushes him harder than most.
"Our best players have to be able to receive our hardest coaching to be are hardest workers and to be our best performers," Cristobal said. "He's young, but yet the maturity we've seen over the past year form him and what we expect this year has been incredible."
Redshirt senior Jalen Jelks, who played with Mariota and Vernon Adams Jr., says Herbert has become a team-wide presence.
"He's become a lot more vocal and has stepped up as a leader," Jelks said. "He likes to push everybody."
One trait Herbert possesses that could make him special is his ability to process information. Cristobal said Herbert can fix situations when they aren't going the team's way. If a play looks like it's about to lead to a bad situation because of the defensive alignment, Herbert can recognize the problem and get the offense into a better play.
"When a quarterback can do that it becomes another level of football for your offense," Cristobal said.
Herbert must show that he can reach that level late in games against top competition if Oregon is going to make a run at the Pac-12 title.
Only then will Herbert have lived up to the hype.