EUGENE — An indelible memory of Justin Herbert's Oregon football career, so far, happened at Utah on Nov. 19, 2016, when he led a fourth-quarter comeback at Utah.
The Ducks surprisingly won 30-28, amid a 4-8 season, thanks to then-freshman Herbert's 17-yard TD pass to Darren Carrington with seconds remaining, a play originally ruled out of bounds but overturned on review as replay showed the receiver's foot landed inbounds. It was an unbelievable finish, literally, considering the Ducks' bad season.
But, it was a play earlier that showed Herbert's moxie as he helped sustain a two-minute drive for the winning points. Desperately scrambling on third down, Herbert rushed for 12 yards and the first down, after which Carrington said it "reminded me of a quarterback we had a couple years ago (Marcus Mariota)." Moments later, Herbert threw the game-winning TD pass.
The point here is, if coach Mario Cristobal has his say, Herbert should be making many such plays in his senior season. Cristobal emphasized that his 6-foot-6, 235-pound quarterback needs to play like a star player for the Ducks to be successful.
"A guy like that has to take over a football game," Cristobal said.
Herbert, having opted to return for his senior season rather than be a top-10 NFL pick, has the reins to the UO offense, with big things expected of him. "He's continuing to take control of the entire offense," Cristobal added. "He's a great quarterback and he understands the offense A to Z with his eyes closed."
Herbert just wants consistency — for himself and the offense. He'll have an experienced offensive line and two 1,000-yard running backs (Travis Dye, CJ Verdell), as well as some veteran and young receivers and experienced tight ends in Jacob Breeland, Cam McCormick and Ryan Day.
"Putting together a full game would be huge," said Herbert, the Sheldon High of Eugene product who in 30 games as a Duck has completed 62.5% of his passes for 7,070 yards and 63 touchdowns with 17 interceptions. He has run for 510 yards and nine TDs.
The story at quarterback isn't just Herbert. For a program that has suffered from poor play from backup QBs in recent years, the Ducks have something special in redshirt freshman Tyler Shough, they believe. After Braxton Burmeister transferred to Virginia Tech, Shough solidified the backup QB position in spring ball.
He's also a big (6-5, 220) pro-style quarterback with a strong arm. From Chandler, Arizona, he was highly recruited, choosing the Ducks over the likes of Alabama, Florida State, Michigan and most Pac-12 schools. He played in three games and for eight snaps last season, taking advantage of the new redshirt rule that allows for extended play and to retain the year of eligibility.
Cale Millen and Bradley Yaffe are the other quarterbacks on the roster. In spring ball, injuries held back Millen, a prize recruit and son of former Washington Huskies quarterback Hugh Millen.
Shough is ready to play, if something should happen to Herbert.
"Last year was a huge growing and learning curve for me, getting chemistry with the guys on the team, seeing how it goes, getting my feet wet was huge," he said. "I gained 20 something pounds and feel a lot more comfortable with my body, and I'm getting better all-around."
Confidence also grew. Shough feels confident running the offense and making all throws, although he said accuracy in intermediate passes needs to improve. Playing in only three games and for eight snaps last season seemed like underutilization, but "I think it worked out for the best," he said.
Backing up Herbert can only help Shough.
"He's so physically dominant of a presence," he said. "You watch him, you can't go wrong, pretty much. He and I have gotten close this offseason, and it's a great opportunity for us. I'm going to do what I can to help Justin each week and help the team."
And, Shough does concur with his coach, saying that a time comes when the quarterback has to make a big play.
"That's in your DNA. You have to have that fire inside you to go get it, no matter the situation," he said. "I've gotten a lot more confident in that, and I'm more athletic with the ball."
Shough is the proverbial one injury away from being the most important player on the team.
"The biggest key is to prepare as if you are the starter and take each game as it is," Shough said.
There are still several practices ahead of the season-opening game, Aug. 31 against Auburn at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Practice repetitions will go to Herbert and Shough as the game draws near.
But the 6-3, 210-pound Millen is excited to be back on the field. He nursed a foot injury and a shoulder injury during spring ball after enrolling early at Oregon.
"It's good to get back out there and start running around again," Millen said.
From Snoqualmie, Washington and Mount Si High School, Millen raised some eyebrows when he signed with the Ducks. His father, Hugh Millen, was UW's star quarterback for two years, leading the Huskies to a 1985 Orange Bowl win and a No. 2 national ranking. He later played several years in the NFL, and the elder Millen maintains a presence around the Washington program and routinely shares his views on Seattle radio.
But, the younger Millen wanted to pave his own way. He threw for 2,743 yards and 35 TDs (with five interceptions) as a junior and 3,807 yards (on 75.9% passing) and 51 TDs (with seven interceptions) as a senior.
He was rated the No. 6 pro-style quarterback in the country by 247Sports, and the No. 2 prospect in Washington by ESPN.
"He's doing pretty good, he's a smart kid, he wants to do good," Shough said. "He works really hard, he's really athletic."
Millen just wasn't healthy enough in the spring to challenge Shough to be the backup QB.
"I'm not focused on competing, I'm just trying to learn as much as I can," he added. "Tyler's a great role model to learn from, and so is Justin. I couldn't be in a better spot than with the quarterbacks ahead of me to learn from. I'm just excited for this season and the next offseason to see where it goes."
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