Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, most likely to: “Throw a touchdown pass, be our president, do whatever Justin Herbert wants,” senior running back Tony Brooks-James said. “Anything he puts his mind to.”
This week, Herbert has set his mind to do whatever it takes to lead No. 19 Oregon to its first Pac-12 conference victory of the season against No. 24 California. The Bears are undefeated and have one of the best defenses in the country.
Herbert’s preparation for Cal, the team with the most interceptions in the conference, began late Saturday night after the Ducks’ stunning loss to No. 7 Stanford.
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior sat at his locker in Oregon’s Hatfield-Dowlin Complex. Brooks-James walked over to talk to his quarterback. The two Ducks sat and reflected on the mistakes that caused the overtime defeat, but then Herbert changed the trajectory of the conversation.
He told Brooks-James that they needed to move on, learn from loss, adjust in practice, and beat Cal. Brooks-James agreed.
“For him to acknowledge that, is much different from last year Herbert to this year Herbert,” said Brooks-James. “Last year ‘Herb’ would have sat at his locker an hour longer and dwell on his mistakes.”
Brooks-James has witnessed Herbert’s transformation, mentally and physically.Two years, two head coaches and 20 pounds of muscle ago, Herbert made his first start on the road against Cal. Herbert threw a program record six touchdown passes, including five in the second half and overtime, but the Ducks lost the double-overtime thriller, 52-49. The freshman quarterback threw a pick in double-overtime to seal Cal's victory and collapsed on the field in tears before his teammates picked him up. He had tears in his eyes when he faced the media.
Now, Herbert returns to Memorial Stadium in Berkeley, Calif. as a potential first round NFL draft pick and Heisman Trophy candidate. He’s ready to lead the Ducks to a vital victory at Cal that starts toughest stretch of their 2018 schedule. Herbert has thrown for more than 300 yards in back-to-back games and going into week five, has the best passer rating in the conference at 179.41.
“He seems to get better and better as the moments get bigger,” said Oregon coach Mario Cristobal. “He is driven. He hungers for that… He won’t allow himself to flinch.”
Cristobal points to Herbert’s preparation as what defines the quarterback. In his first year as UO’s head coach, Cristobal says he’s seen Herbert prepare harder and harder each week.
Herbert, never a boaster, downplayed his game prep when asked. He said he meets with his teammates as much as possible to make sure the team is comfortable with the game plan.
Sounds like coach speak, doesn’t it? It kind of is. Cristobal has repeatedly called Herbert a “field general” who understands the run game like a coordinator does. The offense relies heavily on Herbert’s advanced knowledge of protections and the running game. He’s able to quickly get the offense into the right play, based on shifting defensive looks.
His presence in the pocket, paired with his ability to hurt opponents with his legs while also displaying solid arm strength, is one of the reasons he’s become a hot commodity among NFL scouts. Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller has Herbert ranked as his top quarterback and No. 9 overall prospect.
On Saturdays, Herbert listens to music on walks while rehearsing the game plan. The plan is always the same.
“Not do anything special, stay in my game plan and rely on my teammates,” Herbert said.
Herbert, not special? There are 11 defenses in the conference that would probably disagree.