In a down season, promising young QB emerges for the Ducks
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) In a season of surprises for the Ducks, perhaps nothing has been more unexpected than the emergence of quarterback Justin Herbert.
The freshman, a local kid out of Eugene's Sheldon High School, is already setting school records and drawing comparisons - however premature - to former Duck Marcus Mariota. Even his quiet steadiness is similar to the Heisman winner's.
''He's calm and he's composed,'' Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown said. ''You know those people who've got it. I've been around the game a long time and you just know he's got it. He's got the `it.'''
The Ducks, who just two seasons ago were playing in the national championship game, have fallen dramatically this season and are in danger of missing out on a bowl game for the first time since 2004. Currently 3-5 overall and 1-4 in Pac-12 play, underdog Oregon visits USC on Saturday.
Oregon was sunk by a five-game losing streak after opening the season with a pair of nonconference victories. It was the longest losing streak since a five-game slump in 1996.
Because he didn't play in Oregon's spring game and many fans hadn't seen him play, it was something of a surprise to those outside the program when Herbert was named graduate transfer Dakota Prukop's backup following fall camp.
Since then, he's supplanted Prukop as the starter in the past three games. His first opponent was daunting, then-No. 5 Washington, and it wasn't pretty: The Ducks lost 70-21.
The next team up was California. Oregon lost 52-49 in double overtime, but Herbert threw for 258 yards and six touchdowns. He tripped up on the last play, throwing an interception and afterward vowed to learn from the experience.
His six touchdowns tied the team's single game total - a feat also achieved by Mariota.
Herbert broke into the win column last weekend against Arizona State. Sure, the Sun Devils were decimated by injuries, but Herbert threw for 489 yards and four touchdowns in a 54-35 Oregon victory. His passing yardage tied the Oregon mark set by Bill Musgrave against BYU in 1989.
Oregon quarterbacks coach David Yost said one of Herbert's strengths is that he doesn't get rattled.
''What he's been able to do, in that Washington game he knew he didn't play perfect in that game but he didn't lose confidence in himself. He played in the Cal game, he didn't make the play at the end of the game, but he didn't lose confidence in himself. This game is just going to help build his confidence in himself,'' Yost said. ''Playing him when we did, I think it worked out right and I think in the long run it will be the best thing for him because he had a little time to ease into it and get a feel.''
Following the victory over the Sun Devils, the young 6-foot-6 QB was teased for his almost eerie calm. Perhaps it was freshman nerves, but he only briefly cracked a smile when asked if he was excited about the win.
''Winning that game meant a lot to me and the rest of the team,'' he said.
About the most emotion he showed was when he was told about matching Musgrave's yardage mark.
''I don't know as much about Bill Musgrave as I need to know,'' he quipped, laughing.
It was reminiscent of those early postgame press conferences with Mariota, who was shy and clearly uncomfortable with the limelight. Mariota got more polished as his college career progressed, but remained unassuming.
For comparison's sake, Mariota redshirted his freshman year. His first season, he started in the opener and led the team to a 12-1 record. That season he also turned heads against Arizona State, throwing for a touchdown, catching a TD pass and running for another score.
Mariota, now with the NFL's Tennessee Titans, has explosive speed and an uncanny ability to improvise on the fly. Herbert, meanwhile, impressed Oregon's coaches with his quick grasp of the playbook. Brown said Herbert is especially good at keeping plays alive.
Coach Mark Helfrich, who discovered Mariota on a recruiting trip to Hawaii and urged then-coach Chip Kelly to offer him a scholarship on the spot, praises his new young quarterback for his poise and raw talent, while trying to keep perspective.
''It's not a one-man show, but that quarterback position is awfully important,'' Helfrich said. ''We can't anoint anybody at this point, but we like where he's going, we like where his head is, we like his demeanor.''
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