EUGENE, Ore. -- On a sweltering August day, Justin Herbert stood over a golf ball at the far end of the driving range at the Eugene Country Club. The air was hazy, with hints of ash from nearby wildfires, but Oregon's mammoth, 6-foot-6, 240-pound junior quarterback has been sending ball after ball down the range. He wanted to try his driver, but the course superintendent is afraid he'd hit members standing at the other end of the range, so Herbert pulled out his sand wedge.
Blame it on adrenaline, or the fact that Herbert has added 20 pounds of muscle over the past eight months, but he crushed the ball straight ahead for what appeared to be at least 150 yards.
"That's not that good," Herbert grumbled.
"Sand wedge is not supposed to do that," Herbert said.
Technically, no. An amateur player is supposed to send a ball roughly 100 yards with a sand wedge. But Herbert isn't satisfied. After two more swings, he signaled his approval by casually twirling his club.
"He's one of those people that, number one, is really hard on himself," Oregon offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo said. "He's a perfectionist. He's a person who wants to do everything exactly right. And that creates a lot of internal pressure."
That quest for perfection is a major reason why Herbert is viewed as a Heisman Trophy candidate and possibly a first-round pick in next year's NFL draft, despite not being a known commodity nationally. Through three games, he's averaging 280 yards passing with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. He leads the Pac-12 with 10.4 yards per attempt.
On Saturday, the 20th-ranked Ducks (3-0) host No. 7 Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) with ESPN's "College GameDay" in town. It's a chance for the Ducks to make a statement on the national stage, but it's also a chance for Herbert to record his first real signature win at Oregon.
"He's as good or better than anybody I've been around," Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said. "He's just scratching the surface."
Herbert wasn't highly recruited as a three-sport star at Sheldon High School in Eugene. For a while, he thought he would play at Montana State, one of his first scholarship offers, and where his older brother Mitch played receiver. It wasn't until Nevada offered in October of his senior year that Oregon extended its own offer. Herbert committed almost immediately.
In 2016, he became the first true freshman to start at quarterback for the Ducks in 33 years, but his career trajectory hasn't always been smooth. A broken collarbone limited him to eight games in 2017. And he has had three different head coaches in his career -- Mark Helfrich, Willie Taggart and now Cristobal -- with differing offensive schemes.
In 20 games, Herbert has thrown for 4,759 yards and 46 touchdowns. He's the only current FBS quarterback to lead his team to more than 40 ppg in 10 or more career starts. This season, Oregon is averaging a Pac-12-best 51.7 ppg and Herbert has thrown a touchdown in 18 straight games.
Part of Herbert's development has been getting out of his comfort zone. His coaches and teammates still get caught off guard by his newly long hair, which garners comparisons to a young Brad Pitt. Cristobal joked at Pac-12 media day in Los Angeles that he was concerned he'd lose his starting quarterback before the season even began.
"I'm walking around and I go, well we're in Hollywood, here's this big old, you know, 6-foot-6 stud, man," Cristobal said. "He's all muscled up now. And now, he's got his hair flowing like, you know, like Fabio, man, back in the day. And I'm thinking, well, is some like modeling agent going to come out here and snag this guy and, and keep him out here in L.A. and make him a model?"
The biggest change for Herbert is that he has become a more vocal presence with his teammates.
"I've done a good job of stepping up when I need to," Herbert said. "I'm still not nearly where I need to be, but I'm progressing and every day is a challenge, so we get up there and do what I can."
It was Taggart who challenged Herbert to speak up more last season and and control his emotions that sometimes flared up when his perfectionist personality got the best of him. One second, Taggart, now Florida State's head coach, watched Herbert fire off effortless deep passes. The next, he watched his quarterback beat himself up for missing an out route. The good greatly outweighed the bad, Taggart said, but even the smallest mistakes would affect Herbert.
"He's competitive and he wants to make everybody happy," Taggart said. "Early on, that was getting to him ... and it was getting to a point that it was getting to the other players, too."
Taggart told Herbert that not every mistake was his fault and that it was OK to hold people around him accountable. It took time for Herbert to settle his emotions when perfection wasn't possible, but Taggart never let him slide. As soon as he saw his quarterback talk and smile less, he was on him.
Taggart recalled a moment in spring practice when the offense wasn't playing well. He told Herbert that this was a great opportunity to demand a sense of urgency from the offense.
Herbert's response caused starting left tackle Tyrell Crosby to smirk in surprise at his quarterback's change in demeanor.
"Justin was like, 'It's not f---ing funny,'" Taggart recalled. "It was like the awesome moment, and sure enough we went right down there and scored. It was perfect.
"He led by example, but our team needed more and wanted more."
Just don't tell him that.
Herbert grew up 10 minutes from Autzen Stadium and has been a Ducks fan since he was a child. His grandfather, Rich Schwab, played receiver at Oregon in the 1960s.
Herbert doesn't like the limelight and while he has the résumé to be Big Man on Campus, he doesn't have the appetite. He sits on Ferrari leather seats in Oregon's team meeting room and walks on Brazilian wood floors inside Oregon's opulent football facility, but drives home in the black, hand-me-down 2013 Honda CRV he got from his grandparents as a junior in high school.
Being Oregon's quarterback is a dream come true for the kid who used to wear a LaMichael James jersey while attending games at Autzen.
"I wake up every morning thankful for the opportunity and still pinch myself, because just a couple years ago I was in the stands watching," Herbert said.
He wasn't on the radar of many high-level programs. Maybe coaches weren't digging around western Oregon for quarterback potential, but his recruitment was mostly stunted by a broken femur early in his junior year of high school and the fact he picked summer practice over summer camp recruiting circuits.
"He wanted to be a Sheldon quarterback and a Sheldon shortstop and a Sheldon power forward," said Lane Johnson, Herbert's high school football coach. "That's what he wanted to do. So, he didn't do ... any of those camps. He told me he would never miss a Sheldon workout to go to something just for him."
Cristobal believes Herbert has become a more cerebral player and is amazed at how he sees the field spatially without being a "sequential, robotic guy." He's an Academic All-American majoring in biology who described his organic chemistry class as "fun." He stumps teammates in games of Hangman with words like "zephyr" and took Arroyo's blood pressure for a class project.
"I think he's the No. 1 pick. He can make every throw, and he's more athletic than most people give him credit for. He can move easy; he's a freak of an athlete. To me, he's just a generational player." Willie Taggart
"He wants more on his plate," Cristobal said, "so we're giving him more and he wants to master it. Everything with him is what you want in a quarterback and a football player. It's what you want in a son, really."
"The good Lord doesn't make people like that so often. I think he's the No. 1 pick. He can make every throw, and he's more athletic than most people give him credit for. He can move easy; he's a freak of an athlete.
"To me, he's just a generational player."
Back on the driving range, it is as though the hotter the day got, the better Herbert hit. He found his groove and the smooth motion in his swing resembles the footballs thrown from his right arm. A long strike with his 7-iron elicits a Tiger Woods-like club twirl.
With effortless displays such as these, and on the football field, it's easy to see how Herbert will continue to garner more hype and attention. However, once you start to compliment him, he shrinks. Mention the Heisman or the NFL, and Herbert nearly shuts down.
He knows his name's generating more attention and that the better he plays, the higher his expectations will be. He just doesn't like it. He's more focused on the Ducks' season. This week, it will be Stanford; next week California.
Herbert said he'd be honored to take home some hardware or make it in the NFL someday, but he's too busy living week-to-week, perfecting his game, to think about the future.
"I don't know if I've deserved those type of words yet," Herbert said. "I think with every throw it could always be better. I still got a lot to do and we've got a lot to accomplish before then."