Ducks’ Football Future Will Have to Wait
For the second year in a row, much to the dismay of national pundits and a segment of the Ducks’ own fan base, Oregon‘s prolific offense will be led by a graduate transfer. With last week’s release of the two-deep depth chart, Oregon’s closely-watched quarterback battle was officially decided (for the opener, at least).
Montana State’s Dakota Prukop, one of the nation’s hottest commodities on the graduate transfer market, will take the place of fellow graduate transfer Vernon Adams at the head of the Ducks’ vicious attack. If Prukop can replicate the success of Adams and, perhaps more importantly, stay healthy for an entire season, Oregon could and should outperform the Vegas over/under win prediction for the 2016 season (8-1/2 games).
This success is predicated in large part on the talent at the skill positions, which reaches nearly embarrassing levels this season. First-team all-Pac-12 running back Royce Freeman is the workhorse and a Heisman Trophy contender, but he is just the best of a deep stable of playmakers at the tailback position, including all-purpose back Kani Benoit (listed second on the two-deep) and young speed demons Tony Brooks-James and Taj Griffin.
Prukop will also be throwing to one of the most talented receiving corps in recent memory for the Ducks. Darren Carrington averaged 19 yards per catch the last two seasons and is a touchdown waiting to happen. Devon Allen is coming off a National Championship title in the 110 hurdles and an appearance in the finals of the 2016 Rio Olympics in the same event. Do-everything receiver Charles Nelson was a two-way standout a year ago but has spent this summer focusing solely on offense (which is S-C-A-R-Y for the rest of the Pac-12).
At tight end, Pharaoh Brown is back following an ugly knee injury two seasons ago that not only threatened his football career, but the bottom half of his leg. This season, Brown is fully healthy and looking to expand on his first-team all-Pac-12 performance in 2014.
Still, Oregon faces an uphill battle with national and conference experts, who generally have counted Oregon out of the race in the Pac-12, picking them to finish third in the North division behind rivals Stanford and Washington (the trendy pick to win the conference this season). This apprehension to pick the Ducks largely stems from questions on the defensive side of the ball, where Oregon was anywhere between middling and atrocious at times last season.
However, don’t overlook the quarterback situation as a significant reason analysts are staying away from the Ducks this season, as many view two consecutive years of graduate transfers at quarterback as an inability to find and coach elite-level quarterback talent in the program (talk about “What have you done for me lately?”).
For those of us who express this latest complaint, along with the “gimmick offense” argument, this season’s two-deep offers salvation in the form of a homegrown true freshman.
Eugene’s own Justin Herbert of Sheldon High School is a big, strong, athletic quarterback who has been dazzling coaches and fellow players alike with his performance this offseason. He’s listed as Prukop’s primary backup on the two-deep, ahead of former four-stars Terry Wilson and Travis Jonsen, the latter of whom was previously reported to be Prukop’s top competition for the starting gig this offseason.
So how did a true freshman beat out the others and end up one injury away from one of the most coveted (and highly-scrutinized) positions in the Pac-12? What does this 18-year-old have that the other candidates don’t?
Well, what does any quarterback at this level need? Arm talent. And boy, does Herbert have it in spades. He throws an absolutely gorgeous ball. His passes fly with a touch and accuracy normally reserved for seasoned veterans.
That throw is emblematic of what the coaching staff and receiving corps have been witness to since Herbert joined the team this summer. Carrington, who figures to be the top target for quarterbacks this season, had the following to say about the young signal caller:
“Justin, the freshman from Eugene, I forget his last name, that’s my guy. I wish he would have came [sic] in the spring; he may have been in the competition a little more. He’s way above and beyond what I thought other freshmen would be. He’s got a beautiful arm.”
We’ll forgive Carrington for forgetting Justin’s last name, and the WR continued his glowing review, saying he was “shocked” by Herbert’s play this summer. And when asked who threw the best ball in practice, the receivers continually mentioned Herbert, as well as Prukop, as a cut above the rest. In addition to his touch and accuracy, Herbert pushes the ball deep downfield effortlessly thanks to some serious arm strength and a quick release.
As anyone who pays attention to Oregon football knows, the quarterback is often asked to do more than just distribute the ball to his playmakers; he’s often asked to make the plays himself with his legs. Herbert seems to fit the bill here, as well. The young quarterback doesn’t shy away from contact (he will have to start sliding more at the college level), often bowling over high school defenders on his way to the end zone. He uses his 6’6, 215-lb frame (according to his profile on GoDucks.com) to power through linebackers and safeties that are simply overmatched physically.
He runs with impressive vision and patience, using his blockers to set up long gains. And once he breaks through to the secondary, he uses his long legs to punish any defender foolish enough to take a shallow angle on him. He often blows the doors off much slighter defenders, displaying speed that is uncommon with someone his size. While he’ll probably struggle to simply run past FBS-level defenders, his patience and vision will translate well to Oregon’s offense.
Finally, he uses his athleticism and his natural arm talent together to create devastating big plays for his offense. He is a good passer from the pocket, but becomes truly dangerous once he rolls away from pressure. He is able to extend plays, and like the best dual-threat quarterbacks, he keeps his eyes downfield while scrambling in hopes of finding the open receiver. And when he does, he throws a great ball on the run, an absolutely essential tool for a quarterback in the Oregon offense.
I don’t want to put too much stock into some highlight tape from one year of high school, but it’s hard to not get excited about a kid with so much natural ability. Given all these gifts, how is it that Herbert flew so far under the radar? Well, he was just a three-star recruit coming out of high school due in no small part to suffering a leg injury early in his junior year that caused him to miss the rest of that season. He played just two games that year, but threw 10 touchdowns during that span. Had he stayed healthy, he probably would’ve been a highly-touted prospect.
All that aside, Herbert is playing second fiddle to the graduate transfer Prukop – at least for now. What exactly does Herbert’s place as top backup mean in the short term? As any Oregon fan with half a brain can tell you, Oregon was dynamic on offense last season with Adams. The problems came when he stepped out of the game, which was a semi-regular occurrence thanks to a nagging injury to his throwing finger and a helmet-to-helmet collision that knocked him out for the second half of the excruciating collapse at last year’s Alamo Bowl (which I attribute entirely to the loss of Adams).
There are a number of adjectives I could use for last season’s top backup Jeff Lockie, few of which are publishable. He was the worst combination of timid under pressure and over-confident in his arm’s ability (which was sub-par at best). Having a backup with some serious skills like Herbert has shown is huge for an offense where the quarterback position can make or break a football team. Should history repeat itself and Prukop deals with nagging injuries this season (knock on wood), it will be invaluable to have a backup who has the trust of his coaching staff and the offense as a whole.
Additionally, Herbert being named the top backup tells us that the coaching staff is supremely confident in him and his ability to take the reins immediately should the need arise, as they wouldn’t risk burning his redshirt if they didn’t truly believe he was the clear-cut second-best quarterback on the roster.
On a grander scale, what does Herbert being named second string tell us about the future of the program? Primarily, it tells us Oregon seems to have found a quarterback they think can lead the Ducks in the years to come. Secondly, it tells us that two years of graduate transfers starting at Oregon are more likely an aberration than a trend.
To better understand this aberration, one must look at Oregon’s recent history at the position. If you take a look at the quarterback situation the Ducks have had over the last five years, you’ll see one thing (see also: person) in particular: Marcus Mariota.
I can’t overemphasize how big an impact Mariota had on this team. They just opened a shiny new building in his name on campus and he’s only been gone one football season! But despite how great Mariota was for the team while he was the big man on campus, he had an extremely detrimental effect on recruiting at his position (through no fault of his own).
No one wants to be a legend’s backup. And very few want to be the act immediately following an all-time great. Oregon’s inability to find a replacement for him is a direct result of Mariota’s excellence. This is not to completely excuse the poor planning and recruiting by the coaching staff at the quarterback position in Mariota’s final seasons, but his influence on recruiting cannot be ignored.
It seems Herbert and the Oregon Ducks have a bright future with him at the rudder, but patience is a virtue. Prukop is the starter for this weekend’s tune-up game against FCS UC Davis and will likely start for Oregon’s first big test in Lincoln, Nebraska, in Week 3. He is, in all likelihood, the best chance Oregon has for winning the most games this season. Beyond that, at least for now, it looks like Herbert’s job to lose.
Should Oregon stumble early and often as some are prognosticating, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Ducks pull the plug on the Prukop experiment in favor of getting the true freshman some experience heading into next season. However, I don’t see this happening unless Oregon bumbles its way into its Week 7 bye with three or more losses.
I have a ton of faith (perhaps some that hasn’t necessarily been earned) in the coaching staff and Prukop. But it is incredibly encouraging to see that Oregon has a man and a plan for the future following the graduate transfer era in Eugene.
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