Oregon opened its first two seasons after Marcus Mariota left for the NFL starting Big Sky Conference graduate transfers at quarterback: Eastern Washington’s Vernon Adams in 2015 and Montana State’s Dakota Prukop in ’16. The Ducks opened this season with a homegrown passer, and on Saturday, that passer, 6' 6", 225-pound true sophomore Justin Herbert, was the biggest difference in a 42–35 win over Nebraska at Autzen Stadium that pushed Oregon to 2–0 in head coach Willie Taggart’s first season in charge.
Herbert arrived at Oregon as the B-quarterback in the Ducks’ 2016 recruiting class. The more highly touted passer they signed, Del City (Okla.) High dual-threat product Terry Wilson, actually flipped to Oregon from Nebraska. Herbert was rated the No. 26 pro-style QB in the country and drew scholarship offers from Montana State, Northern Arizona and Portland State, according to 247Sports. The most notable thing about him was his zip code: Herbert played for Sheldon High School in Eugene, Ore.
It soon became clear that recruiting services had undervalued Herbert. After opening last season with a pair of wins over UC Davis and Virginia, the Ducks dropped three straight, including a 51–33 decision at Washington State. Oregon turned to Herbert for a spark, starting him in favor of Prukop the next week against Washington. The Huskies thumped the Ducks 70–21, and in the ensuing weeks, Herbert took his lumps as a true freshman at the helm of a squad with a shaky defense. But he still managed to make a convincing case to begin his second college season as the starter.
Taggart, hired from South Florida to replace Mark Helfrich, made some noise about a quarterback competition this spring, but that seemed more like an effort by a new coach to force players to earn playing time. Herbert has validated Taggart’s decision to keep him atop the depth chart by shredding the Ducks’ first two opponents for 646 passing yards and four passing touchdowns against just one interception on 42-of-54 passing. On Saturday, he outplayed Huskers counterpart and offseason hype magnet Tanner Lee, who threw more interceptions (four) than TDs (three).
It’s too soon to anoint Herbert the next Mariota. He’s yet to face the two toughest defenses on the schedule this season (at Stanford on Oct. 14 and at Washington on Nov. 4). But over two weeks, Herbert has turned the promising flashes he offered periodically last season into regular occurrences and led Oregon to a nonconference win over a Power 5 division contender. And with Wilson and sophomore Travis Jonsen transferring out of the program this offseason, Oregon will be counting on Herbert to keep it up.
Most new coaches don’t have the luxury of inheriting an underclassman quarterback with star potential. Taggart did, and it should expedite Oregon’s climb back to the top of the Pac-12 North.