-- Justin Herbert, QB: A lot has been made about Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert’s play this year, but more so of what has transgressed over the past month and a half.
Herbert began his junior season with a lot of fanfare and hype despite failing to play a full year of college football. Yet, when early NFL mock drafts were posted, there was Herbert’s name atop many of them.
He lived up to the billing throughout the first half of the season when he led the Ducks to a 5-1 record and the No. 11 ranking in the country.
In his three conference games up to that point, Herbert shone brightly against Stanford, Cal and Washington. His arm strength was unmeasurable, his ability to dissect defenses and put the ball in places where only receivers could catch it led to long drives and explosive plays.
In those games, Herbert threw for 773 yards and five touchdowns, completing 60-0f-87 passes (69-percent) of his passes. They were the types of numbers that had NFL scouts drooling about the potential Herbert flashed to be a franchise-changing quarterback, one worthy of his place among the mock drafts.
But since that point, Oregon has fallen off the wagon, going 2-3 and dropping from the national rankings and Pac-12 North race. While there a multitude of reasons as to why the Ducks have struggled as of late, Herbert is definitely one of them.
His accuracy is the most pressing issue, as he’s completed 106-of-191 passes (55.4-percent) in that span. Although defenses have keyed in on Herbert and his connection with wide receiver Dillon Mitchell, he’s consistently missed other receivers, failing to throw them open or taking too many chances into tight spots.
"He's regressed slightly in my opinion in the last couple of games, forcing some throws, making some judgement decisions," former Oregon coach Mike Bellotti told the Oregonian's John Canzano. "He'll get better the more football he plays.”
Issues plaguing the offensive line have been an issue for Herbert as he rarely looks comfortable in the pocket anymore. Instead, he plays as if he knows the rush is coming and if his receiver isn’t open early, he’ll often throw the ball away to prevent the turnover.
He also has looked uncomfortable outside of the pocket, rarely setting his feet or getting his shoulders squared to his target. Because of this, his accuracy has significantly dropped and likewise, the expectations for his future.
But still, the raw tools and natural instincts are undeniable. Herbert, who stands 6-foot-6 and weighs 233-pounds, is proving difficult to bring down when inside the pocket because of his stature. He’s also more athletic than he lets on, showcasing the ability to get outside the pocket and run when needed — totaling 184 yards and two scores this year.
Most importantly is the decision Hebert makes at the end of the year. Does Herbert, the hometown hero from Sheldon High School who grew up going to Oregon games with his grandfather (a former Duck football player himself), leave the only college to give him a real chance early for the millions of dollars waiting for him in the NFL? Or does he return to the Ducks, eager to prove his doubters wrong and restore Oregon to its place among the Pac-12 and nation’s elite.
"He hasn't played that much football at the college level... but I don't know if another year in the Ducks' system, unless they can provide more help at the receiver position,” Bellotti said. “He has to make that decision — I think as a coach you have to be totally supportive, and tell him, 'Hey, we're getting better in recruiting, look at where we're going, what we're doing.'"