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  • Oregon’s quarterback is big, athletic, and was under-recruited before getting a late offer from his hometown Ducks. If he continues to add polish to his game, he’ll have a draft decision to make this winter
By Albert Breer
October 03, 2018

Such a big part of the Carson Wentz story three years ago was how he came out of nowhere (“nowhere” being Fargo) to position himself as a Top 5 guy in the 2016 draft class. Maybe you’d think that would be one big difference between him and Oregon’s fast-rising quarterback prospect, Justin Herbert. But then you hear how Herbert wound up on scholarship in Eugene in the first place.

Herbert’s offer list wasn’t much different than Wentz’s. He had one from Northern Arizona, another from Portland State, and—the offer he was planning to take at one point—joining his brother at Montana State. Herbert broke his leg as a high school junior, so his hometown Ducks (he grew up with season tickets and his grandfather played there) waited to see him throw as a senior, offered him then, and he accepted on the spot. He was the third quarterback in the Ducks’ 2016 class.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It’s been just 37 months since then-Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and OC Scott Frost gave Herbert that opportunity, and it’s safe to say, he’s made the most of it. And there’s a lot more than just being the big, athletic, overlooked small-town kid that will draw the comparisons to Wentz. Most notably, it’s the expectation his wait to be picked won’t last long on draft day.

“He has all the tools, all the traits,” says one AFC exec. “He’s a bigger [Marcus] Mariota to me. He could use another year in school, another year of maturing. But I could definitely see him going high, just based on talent and traits, if he came out.”

The potential 2019 QB draft class was a jumbled mess of great potential and big unknowns coming into the season. Herbert, through five weeks, has pushed to the front of it. There’s the above evaluator’s comp to Mariota. There are a couple others I talked to this week who said Herbert reminds them of Wentz in stature, athleticism, off-schedule playmaking ability, and arm talent.

The implication there isn’t hard to figure out. Herbert’s got the goods to go in the Top 5 picks of the 2019 draft. He’s also got a lot of room to grow, which is great, but also illustrates the overriding feeling among scouts that, while he’s come a long way since arriving on campus, he’s not quite where he needs to be yet from an NFL standpoint.

“He’s got size, arm strength, better touch than people think, he’s athletic for a big man, he can really throw on the run,” says an NFC exec. “And he’s a great kid, has off-the-charts intangibles, wants to be a doctor, he has it all squared away. He wasn’t raised to be a quarterback, but he’s from a football family. … He’s only 21, so he could use an extra year. But if he’s a Top 5 pick, he has to consider going.”

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There are some knocks…

• He already has a pair of two-interception games this year, and they came against mid-major competition (Bowling Green and San Jose State). One evaluator said that it reflects how, as a young quarterback, Herbert still misses receivers and throws, a problem that can be cleared up with snaps.

• His arm is very good, not great.

• He’s not one of these classically trained quarterbacks who had a personal tutor since elementary school—he’s a little like Sam Darnold that way, as an athlete who figured it out along the way. So Herbert, a three-sport high school athlete who also played baseball (he had a 94-mph fastball, one scout said) and hoops, still needs some polish to his game, which will be seen as a positive by some teams (in that it means he can still get a lot better), and a negative by others.

• Because he can be quiet and reserved, and shies from the spotlight, there are surface questions to be asked about how he relates to people, and how he might handle going to a big market. And because he got hurt last year, he’ll be asked about durability. That’s not to say he’s not tough or relatable. It’s just that, as a true junior who wasn’t on the NFL radar until late last year, scouts are catching up on him.

And here’s another fact: As those scouts catch up on him, they all seem to fall for him. A few mentioned the impression he made on them at practice and how those around the Oregon facility talked about him during their school calls in Eugene. You also can’t coach a guy to be 6' 6" and 233 pounds, or be able to move at that size as smoothly as Herbert does, and the thought is he can be coached through his flaws.

Herbert will likely have a decision to make come January. Or, if his trajectory still mirrors Wentz’s when we get there, maybe there won’t be much of a decision to make at all.


SENIOR BOWL SCOUTING NOTEBOOK

Former longtime NFL scout and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy shares the matchups he’s monitoring this week…

Week 6 Matchup: Auburn DT Dontavius Russell vs. Mississippi State C Elgton Jenkins
Last week, we focused on a big-man battle between Boston College RG Chris Lindstrom and Temple DL Michael Dogbe, and Saturday’s matchup of Russell versus Jenkins will be another heavyweight fight. We have already seen both Russell and Jenkins play live this season and we came away impressed with both potential Senior Bowlers.

Probably because he is a four-year starter, Russell is just one of those players that seems like he has been at Auburn forever. He is a durable and dependable lunch pail guy that just shows up every week and does his job. While the Tigers’ defense—heck, the defensive line for that matter—has bigger names and flashier playmakers, the unsung hero is Russell. Marlon Davidson is maybe the most versatile, Nick Coe is inarguably the most athletic, and Derek Brown is probably the most overall talented but Russell is usually the most overlooked.

To fully appreciate what he does anchoring the middle, all you have to do it put on the tape. As is the case with most interior DT, Russell’s value to the Auburn defense cannot be measured in tackles. Pro Football Focus has credited Russell with only eight tackles and five assists through the first five games this season, but he is one of Auburn’s most important defensive players because he is the centerpiece up front and, unlike most big 0- or 1-techniques, he rarely leaves the field.

On film, Russell is a player that consistently holds his ground, rarely gets knocked back, and reliably controls his gap. There are plenty of DTs around the country that can hunker down and eat up blocks, however, there are very few that have the ability to re-create the line-of-scrimmage the way Russell can when he comes off the ball and strikes people.

The biggest point of emphasis for the Auburn coaching staff when it comes to Russell’s development has been getting him to play more vertical. A month into the season, it has been evident that Russell is taking the coaching. The majority of girthy, wide-bodied DTs lack the initial quickness to dictate across the neutral zone; they are essentially just space-eaters. Russell, however, has enough twitch in his 320-pound frame to get upfield and cause some havoc.

The task of stopping Russell from creating that push inside will fall squarely on the broad shoulders of Jenkins, the Mississippi State senior. For a multitude of reasons—too many to explore in this space—center has become more of a finesse position in both college and pro football. That said, if there is a center in the country that can handle a power player like Russell it’s the Bulldogs’ versatile pivot man.

Like the big body he will be tasked with blocking on Saturday, Jenkins’s game is rooted in his good size and play strength. The majority of college centers fall in the 6' 1" to 6' 3" range with an arm length of somewhere between 31 and 33 inches but Jenkins measured over 6' 4" with 34-plus inch arms in the spring for scouts, and more importantly, he plays big at the point-of-attack. NFL teams are constantly hunting for offensive line prospects that “play square”, meaning they can play with their shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage and not get turned or allow any leakage, and Jenkins fits that mold.

Over the course of his college career, Jenkins has started games at every position except right guard, and when you talk to his coaches they are all quick to point out how smart he is. Another part of this matchup will be Jenkins’s ability to identify fronts and communicate calls to deal with Auburn’s aggressive front-seven, particularly in passing situations. Last year, Mississippi State allowed an SEC-low 13 sacks on the season, but through the first five games this year they have already given up 11, including six last week against Florida. Although the majority of the pressure has been coming off the edges, Jenkins must still do his part by helping QB Nick Fitzgerald account for potential blitzers and set the protections.

One area of this matchup that will be particularly interesting to NFL scouts will be seeing how much push Russell can generate inside against Jenkins. In the two games we have studied on Jenkins (vs. Kansas State and Kentucky), he consistently anchored a deep pocket for Fitzgerald and he generally did so without straining. When Jenkins gets his hands on defenders, it’s generally over.

If you are watching this game on television, pay particular attention to which player is beating the other to the punch, because the winner in most “power vs. power” matchups is determined by who establishes the upper hand more consistently. Jenkins is hardly ever on his heels, so if Russell can knock him back a few times, scouts will keep an open-mind about him potentially being more than a two-down run defender.

OTHER MATCHUPS AROUND THE COUNTRY

Boston College TE Tommy Sweeney vs. N.C. State LB Germaine Pratt
Sweeney is an extremely tough, true in-line TE who has improved every season as a pass catcher. He will have a good matchup against Pratt, who has the athleticism and man coverage skills you would expect out of a converted safety.

Vanderbilt QB Kyle Shurmur vs. Georgia CB Deandre Baker
Shurmur has a played a ton of football over his Vandy career and he will need all of his smarts and experience going up against the playmaking Baker, who excels at reading and jumping routes in off coverage.

Utah OLB Chase Hansen vs. Stanford RB Bryce Love
Hansen has gone from quarterback to safety to linebacker during his time at Utah, and has the athleticism and playmaking ability to potentially contain Love.

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Clemson DT Christian Wilkins vs. Wake Forest OG Phil Haynes
This is a matchup of contrasting styles between the athletic Wilkins and the powerful, heavy-handed Haynes. Wilkins will be a tremendous test of Haynes’s foot quickness.

Maryland OTs Derwin Gray and Damian Prince vs. Michigan DE/OLB Chase Winovich
Gray and Prince are both strong, big-framed offense linemen who still need to prove to scouts they have the feet and pass-blocking chops to stick at tackle in the NFL. They better come ready to play against an all-out pass rusher like Winovich.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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