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University of Washington Huskies Football

How the Huskies’ interest in an unknown Justin Herbert nudged the QB to rival Oregon

Oregon’s Justin Herbert drops back to pass against Stanford during the third quarter  Sept. 22 in Eugene. (Chris Pietsch / AP)
By Adam Jude Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Ted Granston considers himself a big-time Husky fan. The Kirkland, Washington, resident was there two years ago in Eugene when Washington trampled rival Oregon 70-21 in the Huskies’ signature victory of the decade. He’ll be watching closely again Saturday afternoon when the No. 7 Huskies return to Autzen Stadium for a premier Pac-12 matchup against the No. 17 Ducks.

A few years ago, in an unusual set of circumstances, Granston was thrilled for the opportunity to help recruit to Washington one of the nation’s most touted quarterbacks, a prospect some are projecting as a future top-10 pick in the NFL Draft.

Granston offered the recruit his best sales pitch, giving the young QB and his parents a tour of the UW campus one afternoon in mid-June 2015.

Alas, the quarterback didn’t end up at Washington. After the campus tour, Granston dropped the recruit and his parents off with UW coaches at the Husky Stadium football offices. He’s not sure what transpired after that and, truth be told, he hasn’t spent a whole lot of time dwelling on it since. He’s been busy enjoying the Huskies’ success the past few seasons.

The quarterback recruit in question that day was Justin Herbert, now in his third season as the starter at Oregon and the single-biggest hurdle remaining in Washington’s push for a second Pac-12 championship in three years.

Except that when Herbert visited Seattle in June 2015 – his second trip to visit with UW coaches that year – he was not a can’t-miss recruit. It was, in fact, the other way around: Most major-college talent evaluators viewed him as a can’t-play recruit, and Herbert himself wasn’t even sure if he could be a viable Pac-12-caliber QB.

The only scholarship offers Herbert had at that point were from Northern Arizona, Portland State and Montana State. After getting a chance to see him up close, UW coaches decided not to extend Herbert a scholarship offer.

“He was just kind of a big unknown,” Granston said this week. (Oh, the only reason Granston had played a role in Herbert’s recruiting trip to Seattle? He just happens to be Herbert’s uncle.)

In an era when major-college coaches seem to have a bottomless budget for recruiting, when recruiting in the social-media age is an exhaustive around-the-clock endeavor, when top-flight QB prospects have personal passing gurus and are scrutinized even before they enter high school, here is Herbert – the one star QB everyone passed on initially.

“He’s fairly unique in today’s sports science world,” Granston said. “He’s the exception.”

How did Herbert nearly end up playing in the Big Sky Conference? And how did the Huskies ultimately nudge him to play for their biggest rival?

It starts with the broken leg Herbert suffered in the third game of his junior season at Eugene’s Sheldon High School. In the first two games, it was apparent to longtime Sheldon assistant coach Les Phillipo that Herbert was “the best player in the state.”

When college coaches would come around and ask, “Do you have anyone good?” – Phillipo would immediately point to Herbert: “He’s exceptional … a 4.0 student … one of the best kids ever … you can’t go wrong.”

That wasn’t so apparent to recruiters. It wasn’t until after then-UW offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith visited Sheldon in early 2015, and after Herbert and his parents, Mark and Holly, visited Seattle, that Ducks coaches started to take a closer look at the quarterback playing just 3 miles from the Oregon campus.

Herbert’s grandfather, Rich Schwab, was a receiver for the Ducks in the 1960s, and the Herberts had been longtime Oregon season-ticket holders. But the Oregon coaches at the time, Phillipo recalled, “basically ignored (Herbert) for the longest time.”

Before the Herberts’ return visit to UW in June 2015, Phillipo called one Oregon assistant to let him know that the QB was about to take a second trip to Seattle. That prompted Oregon to start taking a deeper look at the local QB. (Even so, when Herbert finally was invited to attend a Ducks practice, his name was spelled incorrectly on a name tag.)

Throughout the process, Herbert’s broken leg complicated his recruitment. When he came to UW for the second time, Herbert had just had screws surgically removed from his right leg, and he wasn’t able to throw at UW’s recruiting camp that week. That made the evaluation of the quarterback “very tricky,” UW coach Chris Petersen said this week.

“He was up here and we talked to him,” Petersen said, adding: “When we saw him up here, he was still recovering. … He’s a heck of a player. There’s no doubt about that.”

Herbert was also a standout basketball and baseball player at Sheldon – helping lead the baseball team to a state championship in 2015 – and before his senior year of football, he wasn’t sure what kind of QB he could be in college.

“I don’t think he viewed himself as a Pac-12 quarterback,” Mark Herbert, Justin’s father, said in an interview this week.

Mark Herbert said the interest from Washington coaches – Smith and Petersen specifically – opened the family’s eyes to see Justin’s potential.

“We think the world of Coach Petersen,” Mark Herbert said. “He sat down with Holly and I when we were up there and gave us a presentation in the team room. It was really unparalleled.”

Could Justin Herbert have ended up a Husky?

“There’s no doubt,” Mark Herbert said, “that had they continued on the path, that we’d have welcomed that (scholarship offer) in a heartbeat. It was really heading in that direction. … They were the only ones, the only big school talking to us.”

That summer, Washington had another touted young QB already on campus preparing to enter his true-freshman season, and all Jake Browning has done since then is break every major passing record at UW. No one here has toiled in a what-if game with either of the QBs.

Oregon eventually offered Herbert a scholarship after the third game of his senior season at Sheldon. Then-Oregon coach Mark Helfrich extended the offer four hours after Herbert received his first FBS offer, from Nevada.

Things escalated quickly after that. Herbert took over as the Ducks’ starting QB midway through his true-freshman year in 2016 – his first start coming in UW’s 70-21 win in Eugene – and this season, the 6-foot-6, 237-pound junior been one of the best quarterbacks in the nation, with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions. Some NFL scouts see him as the top QB prospect in college football.

“This all worked out really well for Justin,” Mark Herbert said.

As for Saturday’s game in Eugene? Granston, the longtime Husky and Herbert’s one-time recruiter, has mixed emotions.

“I’m a Dawg fan through and through, but I do want to see my nephew do well,” Granston said. “Just not too well.”