The first thing you notice about Justin Herbert, as I did when he ran past me in the tunnel after this year’s Rose Bowl, is his presence.
He’s huge. He’s solid. He looks like a tight end.
He looks, in fact, like exactly what the Chargers need, which is why it was so fortuitous they selected the Oregon quarterback with the sixth overall pick in Thursday’s NFL draft.
He looks like a cornerstone. He plays like a foundation. He was the perfect pick.
“This is such an incredible opportunity, words can’t describe how excited and thrilled and fired up I am for this opportunity,” Herbert said in a video conference call with reporters. “I am going to do everything I can to be the best quarterback I can be, everything I can for the city of Los Angeles.”
For the record, he will carry the Chargers into their new post-Philip-Rivers, Sofi-Stadium era on a 6-foot-6, 236-pound frame that can throw the heck out of the deep ball.
Also, for the record, he is not Tua Tagovailoa, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
If the oft-injured Alabama quarterback was available with the No. 6 pick, the Chargers might have felt obligated to ignore his four previous surgeries and surrender to the glitz and take him. But they got lucky. The desperate Miami Dolphins took Tagovailoa at No. 5, leaving the Chargers with the more sturdy and improving Herbert.
He’s quiet. He’s small-town, grew up in Eugene, never left. He’s not Hollywood… but he plays like it, and that’s what the Chargers need.
They need to win. That’s the only way they will truly capture any section of this giant city that has thus far ignored them.
The new uniforms, unveiled this week, are beautiful and cool and compelling. They were headlines. They were Twitter trending. But they are not what is going to ultimately build a fan base.
Winning is the only thing that will do that. Winning, especially in the next couple of years when the depleted Rams could be struggling. Winning, with whatever it takes, even if that means a taciturn first-round draft pick who began his college career as a sixth-string quarterback.
They don’t need April attention as much as they need November results, and Herbert has the kind of solid and improving skills that can eventually get them there.
He ranked in the top three in the Pac-12 in both touchdown passes (32) and passing yards (3,471) last fall, which aren’t certifiable wow stats, but he makes wow plays, and more of them every season.
On downfield “go” routes he threw 15 touchdowns with no interceptions. His completion percentage jumped from 59% to 67%. His yards-per-attempt and touchdown-interception ratio also improved. And when shadowed by the Hollywood sign, he shined.
In November at the Coliseum, he was 21 of 26 for 225 yards and three touchdowns in a 56-24 dismantling of USC.
In January in Pasadena, he ran for three touchdowns in a 28-27 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
By the end of his college career, he had accumulated another impressive stat that distinguishes him from the more celebrated Tagovailoa. He had made 42 starts since 2016, tied for second in the FBS.
He shows up. He hangs tough He gets better. He has a 4.0 GPA. He has an equally high ceiling.
“I think it’s a combination of his physical skills, his style of how he plays and his makeup,” said Chargers general manager Tom Telesco. “He’s a big, fast, dual-threat quarterback with still plenty of room to grow.”
The Chargers don’t immediately need a savior. They have a skilled offense already in place around him with the likes of Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Austin Ekeler. They have a veteran starting quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who can mentor him. They have a former quarterback in Shane Steichen coordinating an offense that can be eventually be tailored around him.
“They’re very skilled, they’re very athletic, they have some of the best players in the country…they have a lot of pieces in the puzzle,” said Herbert. “I’m just excited they took a chance on me.”
He’s humble. He is willing to learn. He has already acknowledged he thought he blew his chance to be a Charger by fumbling one of the questions on a written predraft test the team administered.
“I missed a formation,” he said. “I talked to my agent after that and told him, I might not be joining them. I’m just glad it worked out.”
Sitting behind Taylor, who has only been a starter for three of his nine seasons? He can do that, for now.
“I’m going to do anything I can to be the best quarterback I can be,” Herbert said. “If I’m the guy, that’s great, I love playing football and I want to be the guy. But if I have to sit back and learn, I’m going to do everything I can to become the quarterback I need to be.”
He is so humble, so reserved, his leadership skills have been questioned. He couldn’t provide the dagger when his Ducks blew a lead in a season-opening loss to Auburn. He couldn’t inspire the Ducks in a trap-game loss in late November at Arizona State, costing them a chance to appear in the CFP Playoffs.
Once again, though, he improved in this area, finishing his college career by carrying Oregon to a close Rose Bowl win against Wisconsin.
“I think if you ask anyone at our facility at Oregon they’d tell you differently,” Herbert said. “I know what type of leader I am. I’m genuine. I’m real. I’m myself. ... I feel so comfortable the way that I’ve grown as a leader these past two years.”
And now that he has the pressure of shouldering a flailing team trying to survive a big and tough market?
“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, I would say it’s an incredible opportunity, a chance to do something special,” he said. “I want to be the guy they want me to be, I want to be the guy I want to be.”
If that happens, rest assured, Justin Herbert will be big.