EUGENE, Ore. – When Justin Herbert looks at the arc of his career at Oregon, he sees it through the lens of the team as a whole.
The Ducks went 4-8 under Mark Helfrich in Herbert’s freshman year. Then there was Willie Taggart’s lone season at the helm before Mario Cristobal led a more united Oregon to a 9-4 record last year.
That growth is one of the reasons Herbert returned for his senior season.
“I came here and we weren’t a great football team. We were kind of a group of individuals that year,” he said. “I think the past couple of years we’ve done a really good job of coming together and becoming a team.”
While Herbert has grown more comfortable taking on a leadership role and speaking to the media, he has always shied away from discussing individual accomplishments – preferring instead to keep it about the team.
But those accomplishments are considerable, and he’s among the reasons Oregon was picked to finish atop the Pac-12 North in the league’s preseason media poll. The Ducks edged Washington by a point.
Herbert, mentioned as a Heisman candidate heading into last season, threw for 3,153 yards with 29 touchdowns. He has thrown at least one touchdown in 28 straight games, the longest current streak in the nation.
Over his 28 career starts, the Ducks have averaged 38.3 points a game. A local kid from Eugene’s Sheldon High School, Herbert has thrown for 7,070 yards and 63 touchdowns in his three years so far.
While there was speculation he might bolt for the NFL after his junior season, Herbert announced shortly before Oregon’s 7-6 victory over Michigan State in the RedBox Bowl that he would stay for his senior year. Barring disaster, he should be among the top quarterback prospects in next year’s NFL draft.
“I think it’s a really special group of guys – all the guys sitting over there, they’re great to be around, they’re great teammates,” Herbert said at Oregon’s media day at the start of fall camp. “The coaching staff and all the staff, it’s really special. It’s really something I wanted to be around for another year.”
And there’s something else: Herbert will be joined this season at Oregon by his brother, tight end Patrick Herbert, a four-star recruit who was among nearly a dozen early enrollees for the Ducks.
The younger Herbert is already grabbing attention from Cristobal, who said he worked with the tight ends and tackles on the first day of practice.
“My first chance to really kind of get in there with him and he responded great and that’s his DNA. The family DNA. We all know his family,” Cristobal said. “Expecting big things from Patrick and we really think he’s in the mix to play this year.”
The elder Herbert will be looking for a new primary target this season. Dillon Mitchell, who topped the league last season with 75 catches for 1,184 yards and 10 touchdowns, left Oregon early and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings. The team also took a hit this week when senior receiver Brenden Schooler underwent a foot procedure. He is projected to miss six to eight weeks.
A newcomer in the mix is Juwan Johnson, a graduate transfer from Penn State who had 81 catches for 1,123 yards and two touchdowns over three seasons with the Nittany Lions.
“I feel the chemistry is there. All the hard work that we’ve put in in the spring and the summer is definitely going to pay off,” Johnson said. “I’m giving him feedback, he’s giving me feedback on what he likes to see. Obviously, I’m new to the system, so he’s teaching me things and I’m picking up new things.”
Cristobal said Herbert’s task this season is to control the offense.
“There’s going to be some times this year where a guy like that is going to have to take over a football game. We’ve all seen it and he’s already done it a number of times. It’s the next natural part of his growth just like he has done as a leader,” Cristobal said. “He’s done a great job as leader: Great job being able to communicate with the football team, get in front of them, lead by example but also be able to voice his reasons, his concerns or what he feels is important. When your quarterback does that I think it gives you a tremendous advantage.”
Herbert is managing the expectations on him, as well as on the Ducks as a whole, in much in the same way he did last season. He’s ignoring the outside noise.
“I would say not to let it distract you too much, just focus on you, focus on our guys, our team,” he said when asked if he’d learned anything from the attention he got last year. “Listen to the people that really matter to you, and not let it distract you too much, I’d say.”
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