Among the many memories of Eastern Washington’s national championship season is a soggy football wobbling its way toward Greg Herd in the FCS quarterfinals against North Dakota State.
Down by seven with barely a minute to play and facing fourth-and-10 at EWU’s 28, quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell got the play from the bench.
“Actually, Bo didn’t get the play called in right, but we were on the same page,” said Herd, who adjusted his route and made a 16-yard reception that kept the Eagles flying toward Frisco, Texas.
It was an unlikely play, more so because Herd never figured to be catching footballs at Eastern Washington, much less as a national champion and an All-American with a legitimate shot to play professionally.
Never out of position: Herd has been adjusting his route to success since he first put on pads as an 8-year-old offensive lineman.
He laughs at the memory of a year spent on a combined third- and fourth-grade team that included future teammate Nick Edwards.
“I wasn’t a chunky kid, but the older kids were a little faster, so they stuck us on the line.”
That didn’t last long.
Herd went on to play running back and linebacker in youth leagues and was thrust into the limelight as a freshman, playing varsity quarterback at Steilacoom High School near Tacoma. He also played basketball through high school.
“But I just wished that football was year-round,” Herd said.
To that end, the next two summers, in 2006 and 2007, were spent with teammates at football camp in Cheney, where Herd began his acquaintance with then-quarterbacks coach Beau Baldwin.
“I had some good times here with my (high school) teammates,” Herd said. “The coaches were really interested in making you better. Coach Baldwin spent a lot of time with me, and I felt a real connection with him.”
That loomed large when Herd weighed his options as a high school senior.
“You set your hopes high,” Herd said.
But in a common theme for future Eastern players, Herd received interest but no scholarship offers from the larger FBS schools, including Washington State and UCLA. Offers came from Idaho, Idaho State, Northern Arizona – and Eastern, where Herd had “great vibes with the coaches.”
And with the professors.
“They know your name here,” said Herd, who is pursuing a degree in health fitness and education.
Herd played both ways in high school, and fully expected to play defensive back at Eastern, but things changed at a bewildering pace: In less than months in the summer of 2009, Herd – a true freshman – went from offense to defense and from redshirt to full-time player.
Two weeks before fall camp, coaches called and asked him to try out at receiver, a thin position at the time.
“I was expecting to redshirt, so that was a surprise,” Herd said. “No one wants to sit out a year. I wanted to play and make sure the timing was right.”
Even if it wasn’t.
“He wasn’t a natural pass catcher when he got here,” Eastern receivers coach Junior Adams said.
Herd appeared in seven games in 2009, but didn’t make a catch. “I definitely struggled with the position change,” Herd said. “I spent a lot of long days watching film, and my parents and coaches kept me going.”
Patterns to success: That offseason, the coaches decided to move Herd back to safety, but he found an early bond with Edwards and Brandon Kaufman.
“Then we heard that Greg was still working out with the receivers, that he was still running routes in the offseason,” Adams said.
Clearly, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Herd was happier on offense, so the coaches gave him another chance.
“I felt that he needed to get more repetitions, and you would see the growth over time,” said Adams.
“The rest is history.”
First it was time to “get the monkey off my back” with his first catch, which came in the face of a glaring sun at Nevada. He went on to play in all 15 games, catching 32 balls for 374 yards and four touchdowns. A week after North Dakota State, the Eagles clung to a three-point lead over Villanova. On fourth-and-5 from the Villanova 23 with 1:11 to play, Mitchell went over the top to Herd for the clinching touchdown and a berth in the title game.
Herd caught three more passes for 32 yards against Delaware.
“It was such an overpowering feeling, winning the national championship,” Herd said.
The next year was Herd’s best: 67 catches for 1,022 yards and seven TDs, plus All-American honorable mention honors. Against Portland State in the final home game of the season, he had five receptions for 196 yards, including a 96-yarder that was the second longest in school history. But the Eagles lost that one, effectively ending their chance to make the playoffs and defend their title.
“The loss negated all of that,” Herd said of his personal stats. “Mediocrity is something we’re not going to take lightly around here.”
The next route: On the first day of fall camp this year, Baldwin was asked what it would be like to have three 1,000-yard receivers in the same year.
Baldwin thought for a moment, and replied that it would be nice, but probably wouldn’t get the Eagles back to Frisco.
To that end, the Eagles are running the ball more this year. Herd, Kaufman, Edwards and Ashton Clark are still making highlight-reel plays, even with new quarterbacks who need a little encouragement now and then.
Vernon Adams “is like your little brother,” said Herd, who so far has 22 catches for 271 yards and two touchdowns. “I don’t know if he realizes it yet, but he’s growing more mature. If you tell him something, he’s going to take what you said and work on it, and be willing to get better.”
That’s been the mantra for the wide receivers for going on four seasons. “Workout junkies,” Adams calls them, including Herd.
The week after suffering a concussion at Washington State, Herd was held out of practice. Instead of watching from the sidelines, he caught footballs from a machine – one-handed – all afternoon.
“He’s very conscientious,” Adams said.
A year from now, Herd, 21, hopes to be “living out my dream” of playing in the NFL.
“I know it’s not going to be an easy road, but one I want to pursue.” Herd knows he has to come off the line a little faster and work on his blocking.
And adjusting his routes? That will be the easy part.