Tua Tagovailoa’s debilitating hip injury has been the talk of college football — and for good reason. Prior to Saturday’s Week 12 tilt against Mississippi State, the Crimson Tide signal caller was widely projected to hear his name called within the first four picks of the 2020 NFL Draft. His immediate future was altered in the blink of an eye, however, the moment he left Davis Wade Field on a cart — with a towel hiding his agony and dejection. With Tagovailoa unable to participate in any athletic activity for three months, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert now finds himself in position to become a top five pick in the NFL Draft with a strong pre-draft showing.
This piece outlines Herbert’s prolific collegiate career, his NFL prospects, and why the Oregon star has what it takes to become the second quarterback selected.
A heralded three-star prospect out of Sheldon High School, Herbert became the first true freshman quarterback to start at Oregon since 1983. In seven starts, Herbert completed 162 of 255 passes for 1,936 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 4 interceptions. He finished third in the PAC-12 in passer rating (148.75), but it was ultimately his third start against Arizona State that highlighted his freshman campaign.
In the late October bout, Herbert tied the single-game passing record (489 yards), and established a new school record for total yards (512). He passed for four touchdowns.
Herbert navigated the Ducks to a 6-2 record in his second season, despite missing five games due to injury. In his eight games at quarterback, the team averaged 49.1 points and 516.5 yards per game. The ascending talent averaged 247.9 yards per game, throwing for 1,983 yards and 15 touchdowns, adding five more on the ground.
The 6-foot-6, 237-pound signal caller began to garner national recognition, earning PFF All-PAC-12 first-team, Davey O’Brien “Great 8”, and PAC-12 All-Academic first-team honors for his efforts.
While Herbert’s first two seasons gradually started to generate national buzz, his junior campaign would take the college football world by storm.
Fully healthy and determined to establish himself as the country’s premier passer, Herbert threw for 3,151 yards, 28 touchdowns and 9 interceptions — averaging 242.4 yards per contest. He tied for 13th in the FBS in touchdown passes, 27th in passing yards — and became just the fifth player in Oregon history to pass for 3,000 yards in a season.
His elevated play culminated in an abundance of accolades at season’s end: PAC-12 All-Academic first-team, Phil Steele PAC-12 All-Conference first team, Coaches PAC-12 All-Conference Honorable Mention, Davey O’Brien Award semifinalist, Maxwell Award semifinalist, and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award watch list.
More important than the recognition, however, was his leadership and command of the huddle, which seemed to improve each season by leaps and bounds.
On the heels of a breakout junior season, expectations were understandably high for Herbert going into his final season in Eugene. The strong-armed signal caller was named to the Davey O’Brien Award, Maxwell Award, Phil Steele All-America, Athlon Sports PAC-12 first-team, and Phil Steele PAC-12 first-team watch lists. He also ranked 11th on Sports Illustrated’s Top 100 Players list.
Through ten games, Herbert has accounted for 2,662 yards passing, to go along with 28 touchdowns and just 3 interceptions. He managed to eclipse the 300-yard mark three times thus far, against Nevada (310), Montana (316), and Arizona (333).
Shortly after the Tagovailoa injury news broke, the focus then shifted to Herbert. The questions surrounding the senior quarterback were all similar: Is he worthy of a top-5 pick? How fast can he adjust to the pro game? Will his skill set translate?
I’m here to tell you that the answer to these questions is a resounding, yes.
The skepticism is understandable. After all, Oregon’s offensive system isn’t exactly designed to prepare quarterbacks for the next level. The system often calls for quick reads, resulting in screen passes and a heavy reliance of yards after the catch. These tend to inflate numbers — which in turn causes hesitation in making such a steep investment on draft day.
While Oregon’s highly touted spread offense isn’t best suited for an aspiring top-5 quarterback, Herbert has demonstrated signs of being that player over his four seasons. When given the opportunity, Herbert has shown off his rocket-launcher of arm, heaving the ball effortlessly downfield to his fleeting wideouts. His elite arm strength is perhaps only rivaled by Washington quarterback Jacob Eason. Herbert will need to learn to avoid making every throw a line drive — and get some air on his passes to allow his receivers to run under them — but the raw ability is there to evolve into one of the better deep ball passers in the game with some retooling.
A passer in the mold of Ben Roethlisberger, Herbert possesses remarkable athleticism for a quarterback with his build. While he won’t be confused with Lamar Jackson anytime soon, he is well adept at extending plays outside of the pocket and finding the open receiver. His quick decision-making enables him to work through his progressions quickly and unload the football. His rapid anticipation and pocket awareness is typically consistent, which bodes well in negating negative plays at the next level.
With any potential blue-chip prospect, there are always concerns. Aside from the system he ran in college, some may take Herbert’s quiet and reserved demeanor and question his leadership abilities at the NFL level. Does he have the ability to lead men? Can he command an NFL huddle? Those are questions that will be answered during the pre-draft process.
The best thing that Herbert did was return to school for his senior season. Though he pieced together a tremendous junior season and could very well have declared for the draft, there were some flaws in his mechanics that needed refining. NFL scouts tend to gravitate to four-year players, as they are typically the most mature, have experienced the highs and lows of football, and played in big games. If we’re basing it off of raw ability and potential, Justin Herbert is worth a top-5 pick in the NFL Draft; he has the makings of a franchise-caliber signal caller at the next level.