EUGENE — Anyone who has spent time around Justin Herbert knows that he is quiet and shy by nature, and he hasn’t been comfortable with the leadership role that comes with being Oregon’s starting quarterback.
But that appears to be changing.
Since taking over the Ducks’ football program, head coach Willie Taggart has been working with Herbert, both publicly and behind the scenes, to get him out of his shell.
Taggart is pleased with the progress this summer.
“I think Justin has grown up tremendously. I think with him, it was just setting expectations and talking to him about what he needs to do better,” Taggart said. “And Justin is one of those kids who listens. He’s been working on that since spring ball.”
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Herbert was in a tough position last season, but one that could benefit him in his career.
After Oregon struggled to a 2-3 start, the true freshman Herbert replaced senior transfer Dakota Prukop as starting quarterback.
By comparison, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota didn’t start at quarterback until his second season in the program, and Heisman finalist Joey Harrington wasn’t named the Ducks’ starter until his third season.
Oregon put a ton of weight on Herbert’s young shoulders, and the team didn’t perform well on its way to a 4-8 record.
Perhaps it was too much pressure to put on a teenager just out of high school, but Herbert now has critical game experience heading into his sophomore season.
The key, Taggart has repeatedly said since he arrived in Eugene, is for Herbert to embrace his leadership role, not just for the offensive unit, but for the entire team.
“He’s talking more, he’s smiling more,” Taggart said about Herbert. “I’m starting to see a little bit of a different guy. He makes suggestions, which is pretty cool. It’s been cool to see him grow.”
As an example of Herbert’s increased confidence, Taggart said that his quarterback has been walking around with his shirt off, something he wouldn’t have done in the past.
“Right now he’s a little more confident. You see him move his pecs a little bit,” Taggart said with a laugh. “He’s ready to roll.”
Herbert said that the story about him walking around more with his shirt off was “over-exaggerated a little bit,” but teammate Royce Freeman kept the story alive.
“He’s walking around the facility every day with his shirt off, eating meals with his shirt off. We’re trying to beg him to please put his shirt on,” Freeman said jokingly. “I’ve seen Justin grow a lot, I mean he’s giving off a lot of confidence, especially to the rest of the players to show that he’s that guy. We’re definitely following behind him, and we trust him fully.”
In the spring, Taggart said that there was an open competition at quarterback, but Herbert significantly outplayed his competition in the annual Spring Game, and with the departures of quarterbacks Terry Wilson and Travis Jonsen, the starting job clearly belongs to Herbert.
“I think having a year under my belt has helped me a bunch,” Herbert said. “Just realizing that the quarterback has to step up, and the team needs to be led. I’ve put my shyness away and I’ve tried to come out a little more and talk.”
Herbert graduated from Sheldon High School in Eugene, so he brings a unique perspective to the starting quarterback position for the Ducks, who open the season at 5:15 p.m. Sept. 2 against Southern Utah.
“Growing up in Eugene, I know how important Oregon football is to all the Ducks fans. I know how important it is, I know how important the rivalries are,” Herbert said. “I really understand it from a fan perspective. Playing Ducks football has always been a dream of mine.”