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Right at Home: Justin Herbert Making the Most of Senior Season at Oregon

After passing up the NFL's millions to return to Oregon, Eugene native Justin Herbert is making the most of it, excelling on the field, learning in the film room and chilling in the family hot tub.
Justin Herbert NFL Oregon football

The sun is setting quickly in Eugene as Mark Herbert strides across a sidewalk blanketed with rust-colored pine needles. For years he made this one-mile walk from his home to Autzen Stadium with some combination of his three sons by his side. His youngest two boys are heading to the same place, but they are traveling via police escort on Oregon’s team bus. Mark, a sales manager at a wood products company, is in a hurry tonight because he has never joined the March to Victory, in which Ducks fans gather to welcome the team when it arrives at the stadium. His middle son, Justin, is a senior quarterback who has (according to many scouts) the best arm in the 2020 draft class. With only two home games left, says Mark, “now’s a good a time as any to do this.”

Mark ducks inside and lines up to wait for the players’ bus to arrive. He won’t wave to Justin, who is extremely serious and disciplined on regular days; on game days, even more so. The marching band strikes up “Mighty Oregon” and the flock of Ducks enter into the building. Most players smile at family and high-five fans as they walk through the cheering tunnel. Mark’s youngest son, Pat, a freshman tight end, gives his dad a smirk and a nod. But not Justin. The 6’6” quarterback towers over most of his teammates and stares straight ahead, headphones covering his long wavy hair, the embodiment of tunnel vision.

A year ago at this time, Justin was projected as the No. 1 pick in the majority of mock drafts. (That was when Kyler Murray was still going to play baseball.) But the Eugene native and general science major with a 4.01 GPA made the surprise decision to come back for his senior year. Herbert wanted one more season with the Ducks and a chance to be teammates again with Pat. The last time a quarterback of Herbert’s stature passed on first-round millions was in 2011, Andrew Luck’s final year at Stanford.

“There was love affair with the first pick [Kyler Murray], but I would have put money on Herbert being the next quarterback taken,” says an NFL scout.

In the last five seasons, 18 quarterbacks have been drafted in the first round. Only two of those 18 exhausted their college eligibility; Carson Wentz and Baker Mayfield. Two entered the draft after starting just one season in college: Mitch Trubisky and Dwayne Haskins. The lure of NFL money and the risk of injury in college has set off a growing trend of underclassmen declaring for the NFL as soon as they are eligible. Last year, a record 135 players left college early for the draft.

To ease the ever-present threat of a serious injury, Oregon purchased a permanent and total disability policy and a loss of value policy for Herbert in both his junior and senior years. But insurance isn’t nearly enough to quell a mother’s concerns. On the day Alabama quarterback (and fellow top 2020 NFL prospect) Tua Tagovailoa was lost for the season with a freak hip injury, Oregon played a night game, which meant Herbert’s mom Holly spent the entire day worrying about injuries until the Ducks kicked off at 7:30 p.m. PT.

Herbert’s 240-pound frame and arm strength fit the mold of a model QB, but his personality isn’t what you’d expect of a future franchise leader. At the end of last season offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo gave Herbert the book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Arroyo’s wife is a psychologist, and she marked specific sections of the book she thought would be helpful to Herbert. The quarterback isn’t on any social media to avoid what he calls “unneeded attention” and the negativity that abounds on the Internet. (He recently downloaded the video-sharing app TikTok but doesn’t have his own account; he just likes to watch funny videos). He lives in an apartment in downtown Eugene, away from campus, because, “he likes to be a little bit outside of everything,” says offensive lineman Charlie Landgraf, Herbert’s roommate.

So as Herbert’s NFL stock rose in the fall of 2018, he was one of the last to know. Landgraf tried unsuccessfully to show Herbert mock drafts and stories he came across on Twitter, but each time he passed his phone to his roommate, Herbert hit the power button to lock the screen. “We had a conversation about that,” Herbert says, “and he’s been really good about not sending me that stuff anymore.”

Herbert has had a different path to the top from most elite quarterbacks of his generation. He was a three-sport athlete (football, basketball and baseball) at Sheldon High and declined to participate in the intense QB development circuit. Herbert did a session with a private coach in Portland, one hour for $100. When Mark asked him how it went, Justin just shrugged. He never went back. During Justin’s junior year of high school, Mark talked him into trying out for a seven-on-seven team in Portland. He made the cut but never played because it interfered with the end of basketball season. “I enjoyed basketball and baseball too much to let football take over,” Justin says. “I miss playing those sports right now. I wanted to make sure I got those years. I didn’t want to look back and realize I missed them.”

Because of that team-first, well-rounded-athlete background, Mark thinks Justin didn’t seriously see himself as an NFL-caliber quarterback until he received a first-round grade from the college advisory committee last December. “I still don’t think of myself that way,” Justin says. “We’ve just been so focused here that I haven’t even thought about the NFL too much.”

But he did think about the NFL last year, at least a little bit. He officially announced he’d return for his senior year just before Oregon played in the RedBox Bowl. “Coming back offered way more than I thought leaving would,” Justin says. “There were plenty of reasons for me to return and I know I made the right decision.”

In order to improve as a senior, Herbert set two main goals: Understand the game better and become a more mature leader.

To accomplish the first, he estimates he’s spending 12-15 more hours watching film per week than he has in previous seasons. He has only one online course this semester: Anthropology 365, Food and Culture.

Herbert leaves for the football facility around 5:30 each morning and doesn’t return to his apartment until around 8 p.m. He does most of his solitary film study in the fourth-floor quarterback meeting room, which Arroyo has started referring to as Herbert’s office. “I’ve told him we’ll get him a cot and a little fridge to put in the corner if he wants,” head coach Mario Cristobal says.

In 2018, Herbert threw eight interceptions; at the end of the regular season, he’s only thrown five. Herbert’s completion percentage has increased to 67.5% (from 59.4% last season) both because he understands more about reading coverages and because Arroyo has fixed mechanical issues with Herbert’s front shoulder and back foot.

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“It’s nothing he hasn't had the ability to do consistently,” Arroyo says. “It was just finally getting a chance to say, hey look in the last year we are really going to focus on this. It’s pretty graduate course [stuff].”

Herbert has also tried to be a more vocal leader this season. During a practice early in fall camp, the first-team offense committed a couple of false starts and receivers dropped passes. Herbert called the unit off the field and restarted the drill on his own, yelling, We’re not doing this!

“The team heard him speak up,” says Arroyo. “He’s been with us for a couple years and he feels comfortable doing it around the group now. He has had three head coaches and when that happens, you reset yourself each time, especially when you’re an introvert.”

Herbert played for Mark Helfrich as a freshman, Willie Taggart as a sophomore and now Mario Cristobal as a junior and senior. “It’s a lot easier [this season],” Herbert says. “I feel much more comfortable addressing the guys and I know they feel more comfortable coming to me.”

Oregon Justin Herbert Mario Cristobal

Oregon, ranked No. 11 in the preseason, lost to No. 16 Auburn 27-21 in its opener, and then won nine straight to reach a peak No. 6 ranking from the College Football Playoff committee in Week 11 and 12. An upset loss at Arizona State in Week 13 spoiled its playoff chances. Two of Oregon’s nine straight victories were fourth-quarter comebacks. At Washington State, the Ducks trailed 35–34 with 45 seconds left. Herbert led a 53-yard drive that resulted in the game-winning field goal. “I remember walking up and down the sideline, just thinking there was never a doubt,” he says. “We’ve done this before, and we executed it just like we do in Wednesday two-minute drill practices. Last year, I don’t think we would have acted like that.”

Says Arroyo, “maturity at the position is the biggest thing sets apart the guys who do this for really long time successfully from the guys who don't.”

Justin is so competitive that Pat says he would sometimes purposely lose to him when they played video games so he didn’t have to deal with an angry Justin. That competitive fire combined with that football maturity is now resulting in his ability to lead a team to the Pac-12 championship game, which sends an important signal to NFL evaluators.

“He has definitely been more consistent,” says Jim Nagy, director of the Reese’s Senior Bowl. “That was a knock on Justin last year. He had some peaks and valleys in his play. He always made those wow throws, but now he is hitting more of that routine stuff that he would miss in past years. He has definitely benefited.”

Says a veteran NFL scout, “It was important for him to come back. He needed to grow and mature and I think this year has helped him. With quarterbacks, it is a hard jump, you better be as prepared as you possibly can because chances are, if you get drafted high, you could be joining a situation where you have to play early.”

It’s Saturday, and Justin and Pat are eating breakfast on the fifth floor of the Eugene hotel where the team stays the night before home games. From the balcony, they can see their house, a one-story ranch on a corner lot. On this sunny November morning of the Ducks’ game against Arizona, Mark is busy blowing leaves off the roof. Bursts of red and orange fly off the shingles and onto the yard. Justin and Pat laugh at their dad performing his chores. They text their oldest brother, Mitchell, who is at home. He comes outside to the driveway and yells up to his dad, pointing toward the hotel. They both turn and wave at the other two Herbert boys on the balcony.

It’s small family moments like this one that make playing for Oregon so important to Herbert. His mom, Holly, likes to watch the games from a suite because she doesn’t like to hear fans criticize Justin, but Mark sits in the seats that have been in the family for years, in Section 12, rows 32 and 33.

The tickets originally belonged to Justin’s grandfather, Rich Schwab, an Oregon receiver in the early ‘60s. Schwab died almost two years ago, and as Mark watches Justin and Pat warm up before the Arizona game, he wonders what their grandfather would have thought if he was here to see his two grandsons carrying on his legacy.

Herbert throws for 333 yards, four touchdowns and one interception in a 34–6 win. On a flea-flicker he shows off his NFL-caliber right arm. After flipping the ball to a running back, who tossed it to a receiver, who then passed it back to Herbert, he launches a 53-yard rocket that drops perfectly over the shoulder of receiver Juwan Johnson for a touchdown.

Justin and Pat have spent every Monday night this season at their parent’s home. They each bring friends to watch Monday Night Football and they’ll hop in the family’s hot tub for a recovery session. Holly takes orders for Dairy Queen blizzards and brings back Snickers for Pat and cookie dough for Justin. Dylan, the family’s Great Pyrenees-black lab mix, usually tries to steal a lick.

After the game Mark, Holly and Mitchell wait for Justin and Pat alongside other Oregon football families. Justin strolls into the room wearing a giant pair of shearling slippers, his shaggy hair wet from the shower. He’s exhausted, but happy. “Justin, are you coming over to the house on Monday?” Holly asks.

There are only a few more Blizzard nights left. At this time next year Herbert will spend his Mondays digging into Sunday’s game tape instead of ice cream. “Yeah,” he says, “I’ll be there.”