By Sam Finley

Last year, he was one of the few bright spots in a very murky 4-8 season for University of Oregon. Justin Herbert, the freshman quarterback and former Sheldon High School standout, became the starter after five games, with relative success. Throwing 19 touchdown passes and only four interceptions for a first-year signal caller is nothing to sneeze at, after all. And yet, the six-foot six-inch Eugene native knew he needed to improve in at least one area going into his sophomore campaign. “I think I have to do a better job of leading,” he says. “I didn’t do a very good job of being vocal last season.”

Indeed, Herbert often came across as shy and awkward during postgame interviews. In fact, when new UO head football coach Willie Taggart came in this offseason, he felt his quarterback was almost intimidated by him, but after a conversation about becoming more relaxed with the coaching staff (as well as his teammates), Herbert has seemingly become more confident and talkative. “Justin has grown up tremendously,” Taggart explains. “It was simply about setting expectations and talking about the things he needed to do better. He’s one of those kids that listens and wants to please, so he’s been working on that since spring ball, and I’ve been really impressed watching him interact around his teammates. He’s talking more, smiling more, and making suggestions. It’s real cool to see, and it all comes with maturity.”

Herbert agrees with his coach’s assessment. “I’ve realized that the quarterback position is a place where you have to step up and lead,” he states. “Coach Taggart and I have talked about how I need to be more vocal. To do that, I’ve had to put my own shyness away and come out more and talk.”
But that’s not all that’s changed with Herbert. An intense weight-training program has added 15 pounds to his now 225-pound frame. The kid who would barely open up before is now walking around showing off his new physique. His teammates have certainly taken notice. “I have definitely seen Justin grow a bit,” says running back Royce Freeman. “He’s giving off a lot more confidence to the rest of the players and that shows he’s the leader of this team, and they’re definitely getting behind him. We trust in him fully, and he’s now walking around the facilities and even eating meals with his shirt off. Now I’m kind of begging him to please put a shirt on. But you can do that when you’ve added the muscle he has, and we like the extra confidence.”

So what does Herbert have to say about his new swagger? “I think things have been a little exaggerated,” Herbert says, smiling slyly. “I’m definitely a little more confident than I had been.”

He’ll need to be, as his Ducks are looking to get back to their winning ways this season. If anyone can do that, it’s the guy who grew up in this area. “I know how important the Oregon Ducks are,” the biology major explains. “Just growing up around here, I know what it means to people. I know how important the rivalries are and understand it from a fan’s perspective. Playing Duck football has always been a dream of mine.”

Fortunately for Herbert, he feels he’s learned from mistakes made his freshman year and is hoping that translates into more victories. “It helped going through that,” Herbert says of the ups-and-downs of last season. “I think having a year under my belt helped me a bunch.”

Perhaps more importantly, there seems to be a new energy around the UO football program. A year ago, the team seemed to lack the urgency and cohesion necessary for success.  Now, however, the players seem to care more about each other, and it’s rare not to see these Ducks hanging out together off the field—one of the many reasons why Justin Herbert feels optimistic about the season ahead. “We’re more of a family now,” says Herbert. “There are things we now do together outside of football, and it’s brought us closer. We’re more comfortable with each other. Having played a year with many of these guys, that really does help a lot.”