Justin Herbert went from ‘Justin Who?’ at Oregon to a Chargers standout in five years
He went from No. 2 on his team to No. 1 in his league, collecting numerous franchise and NFL records during a wholly unexpected offensive rookie of the year season.
Stunning as it was, fast-tracking is nothing new to Justin Herbert, who arrived as the sixth-string quarterback at Oregon and bolted into the starting lineup only six games into his freshman year.
To appreciate how meteoric the rise of the Chargers quarterback has been, consider that it was in August of 2016 that then-Ducks wide receiver Darren Carrington called him this:
“Justin, the freshman from Eugene. I forget his last name.”
Just five years ago — Five! — even one of his teammates didn’t know it was Justin “Herbert.” This week — as the Chargers gather in Costa Mesa for the opening of training camp — all of football knows him ... and well.
Last season, Herbert produced more passing touchdowns (31), total touchdowns (36) and 300-yard games (eight) than any NFL rookie in history.
NFL players need to wake up and get vaccinated. Those who don’t put their teammates in jeopardy in more ways than affecting the outcome of a game.
He finished with more yards than Aaron Rodgers, better accuracy than Patrick Mahomes and a higher rating than Philip Rivers.
He was at his best under pressure, on third down and in prime time.
So, entering Year 2, Herbert is expected to be, ah, better?
“There are no guarantees in this league,” said John Beck, Herbert’s personal coach. “There are a lot of guys on the other side of the ball getting paid a lot of money to stop you. And, as a quarterback, you need your teammates too. But, in terms of what Justin can control, he has a great chance to be an amazing quarterback in this league for a long time.”
The Chargers have a new coach in Brandon Staley and a new offense that is more nuanced and places additional responsibility on the quarterback. Herbert has admitted he has a lot to learn, even as a former straight-A student.
Beck, who works with Herbert at 3DQB in Huntington Beach, predicted any stalling in 2021 will be the result of the transition to a new scheme rather than the development of the orchestrator of that scheme.
“Justin’s going to be an improved football player, no doubt,” Beck said. “He’s certainly going to be a better quarterback. If there are circumstances where the road becomes bumpy, I would believe it would be him getting accustomed to the new offense and he and his teammates building chemistry in a new system.”
Herbert, 23, faced few expectations last July. Yes, he was the No. 6 overall pick, but the Chargers already had veteran Tyrod Taylor and the full intention of starting Taylor for the foreseeable future.
Things changed in Week 2 when Taylor was sidelined by a pregame medical accident minutes before kickoff. Herbert started and performed convincingly enough that he missed just four offensive snaps the rest of the season.
Today, everyone is forecasting greater things as he prepares to operate behind a rebuilt offensive line projected to make Herbert’s life easier.
He suggested that muting the outside chatter won’t be a problem. Herbert insisted he’ll listen only to those whose opinions matter — family, teammates, coaches — just as he always has.
This is a player who grew up grounded in leafy, tree-lined Eugene, who has experienced broken bones and busted seasons, who had only one personal coach before joining up with Beck last year.
When he was in school, Herbert worked with one guy for one hour and, $100 later, told his father Mark that the money could be better spent elsewhere.
“The way you manage expectations is the outside expectations will never, ever, ever, ever approach your own,” Staley said. “We just focus on him being as good as he can be, on him being himself, not trying to be somebody [else].”
Herbert, according to those who know him well, never has been anything but himself, even in the aftermath of his glorious 15-game NFL debut.
As the Chargers begin training camp for the 2021 season, here are six key questions that they hope will be answered.
He returned to Oregon this summer and hosted a charity golf tournament that benefited KidSports, a local nonprofit that provides athletic opportunities for children and is the place where Herbert first experienced organized football.
His tournament sold out so fast that the field had to be expanded. More than $150,000 was raised by Herbert and his fellow “celebrities,” a group that included star wide receiver Keenan Allen along with several other Chargers.
“I was as proud watching him give back through the golf tournament as I was watching him play last season,” Mark said. “There are just some bigger things in life. I think he’s on the right path to seeing that.”
Herbert’s father never expected his middle son to be an NFL star. The family lives practically within the shadow of Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks and Herbert’s stated ultimate destination growing up.
The NFL? That’s a five-hour drive away in Seattle. Until traveling to Denver to watch the Chargers in Week 8 last year, Mark hadn’t been to an NFL game since the late 1980s. He often has pondered how and why so much good has happened to his son so quickly.
He said he considered the professional fate of other notable Pac-12 quarterbacks — think Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold — and wondered, “Why him? Just dumb luck?”
“This is all new to us,” Mark said. “We’re just grateful and gracious that the path he’s on seems like the right one. We’re just parents happy that he’s succeeding. Whatever it is, we’re grateful for it and I think Justin is too.”
It is an adjustment, your unassuming son suddenly sought for television commercials and gaining fame for things such as his latest haircut or ability to barbecue brisket.
A couple of days before the show this month, Herbert turned to Mark and said, “Dad, did I tell you I’m going to the ESPYs?” Mark went online to find out his son had been nominated for an award.
“That’s the way he is about a lot of things,” Mark said. “It’s like, you don’t need to tell anyone how good you are. If you’re really any good, people are going to know.”
For a player who seems to have everything and more, Herbert has experienced empty moments. He broke his leg in high school and missed most of his junior season. He fractured his collarbone as a sophomore at Oregon. His first Ducks team finished 4-8.
There were times in college when Herbert questioned whether he belonged on a Power Five football field. At the 2020 draft combine, he said he didn’t know if was ready to be a starter in the pros because he’d never played in the NFL.
That admission generated outside doubt, former linebacker and current television analyst Emmanuel Acho saying Herbert “could potentially be one of the biggest mistakes of the draft.”
Justin Herbert is planning to devote a significant amount of time studying new coach Brandon Staley’s offense ahead of the start of training camp.
Beck was instrumental in cultivating Herbert’s belief in himself, along with his talent. The two bonded quickly, Beck explaining that they are “both thinkers” and learned in humbled environments rather than at elite camps.
“You just simply played ball,” said Beck, 39, a former NFL quarterback. “That’s how you came up. We both came from a place where nobody’s telling you how great you are. You’re just self-motivated.”
In June, about 16 months after Herbert admitted he didn’t know if he could play in this league, Staley said the most impressive thing about the young quarterback was his presence. He called Herbert “a commander in the offense” and pointed out how comfortable he looks going into and coming out of the huddle and making calls at the line of scrimmage.
All of this adds to the growing notion that this should be a second NFL season more special than the record-setting first.
“Justin has all the tools that you would want,” Beck said. “He’s a smart kid. He’s very determined. It means a lot to him to play well. He’s fully invested. ... He’s exactly what you want when you pick a franchise quarterback.”
At football’s highest level, Herbert is on his way to establishing his game, just five years after someone in his huddle didn’t know his name.
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