EUGENE, Ore. -- When fall camp started, freshman Justin Herbert joined a crowded Oregon quarterback race that was presumed to be between graduate transfer Dakota Prukop and redshirt freshman Travis Jonsen.
From the outside looking in, he was a distant fourth -- at best -- in the quarterback pecking order. Herbert had been a later addition to the Ducks’ 2016 signing class, a group that already had a quarterback who had planned to early enroll -- Terry Wilson.
So when fall camp began and Herbert got to campus, he became the “Who’s that?” of the Oregon quarterbacks.
"I didn’t even notice we had a new quarterback,” defensive lineman Rex Manu said. “I saw him and I was like, ‘Who’s No. 10?'"
“I don’t really remember meeting him,” defensive lineman Henry Mondeaux said of the teammate he now describes as extremely quiet.
And when wide receiver Darren Carrington was asked about the quarterbacks during fall camp, he blanked when it came to Herbert’s last name.
“Justin, the freshman from Eugene, I forget his last name, that's my guy," Carrington told The Oregonian. "I wish he would have came 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."
Prukop was named the team’s starter before the season opener against UC Davis. But a month and a half later, it looks like Herbert didn’t need to come in early to be in the quarterback competition.
After the Ducks returned to Eugene following the Washington State loss -- their third loss in a row -- the coaches had a conversation on Sunday about what direction to go with their quarterback and decided to begin splitting the first-team reps between Prukop and Herbert. Coaches are adamant that the new QB competition has nothing to do with how Prukop has performed this season in games and everything to do with how Herbert has performed in practice.
“[Herbert] has played well and we want to have competition,” offensive coordinator Matt Lubick said. “We’re big believers that competition makes you better. That position gets a lot of publicity but we have that at every position. They’ve both had unbelievable attitudes and they’ve both had a good week of practice.”
In practice and through limited play, Herbert has impressed coaches with his talent and calm demeanor. Last weekend when he went into the Washington State game late, he led the Ducks’ to their final scoring drive with a surprising amount of poise for a true freshman that really hasn’t faced any kind of game action.
“He’s the same guy every play,” quarterback coach David Yost said. “If he throws a pick, he throws a touchdown, it’s the same guy the next play, which is a big deal.”
“The reason he is in a position to compete is because he’s very calm under pressure,” Lubick added. “I know game day is a different type of pressure, but the pressure that we’re able to create for him, he has done very well, which has given us a lot of confidence in him.”
But the pressure that Oregon has created so far will likely pale in comparison to the kind of pressure that No. 5 Washington could bring on Saturday. Though there is never necessarily an opportune time to start a true freshman quarterback, there do seem to be times that are less-than-optimal, and against the FBS leader in sacks seems to be one of those times.
The Huskies have been able to create defensive pressure this season without blitzing too much, which has been tough on even experienced opposing quarterbacks. It allows Washington players to drop into coverage, which is a big reason why they’ve only given up 10 pass plays of 20-plus yards this season.
Coaches have yet to make an official announcement about a starter for this Saturday but if it is Herbert, it’s a fair bet that, unlike the Ducks’ defensive linemen who didn’t even realize there was a new QB in town this fall, the Washington defensive linemen will become well aware and acquainted with Oregon’s true freshman quarterback.