By Ryan Thorburn
The (Eugene) Register-Guard
EUGENE — Justin Herbert is going to have an important life decision to make in January.
The star quarterback can either return for his senior season at Oregon or enter the NFL draft.
But until the end of Mario Cristobal’s first full year as head coach, Herbert and the team’s other coveted pro prospects will focus on leading the Ducks to as many wins as possible.
“We had an agreement before the season started that we weren’t going to address any NFL talk for juniors or seniors until after our last game of the season,” Cristobal said. “That’s an agreement and policy we came up with, the leadership council, and that’s going to be our approach to it.”
Two years after making his first career start against Washington — a biting 70-21 loss — Herbert will try to guide No. 17 Oregon to an upset of the Pac-12 favorite and seventh-ranked Huskies on Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
The Ducks (4-1, 1-1), who used an open date to get a head start on preparing for Washington, are first in the Pac-12 in scoring (45.6 ppg) and total offense (503.6 ypg).
Herbert ranks eighth in the FBS in passer rating after completing 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,411 yards with 15 touchdowns and five interceptions through five games.
“It’s a lot easier to throw the ball when you’ve got guys like Dillon Mitchell and Brenden Schooler and Johnny Johnson and a couple great tight ends,” the humble Herbert said after passing for 225 yards and two touchdowns during Oregon’s 42-24 win Sept. 29 at California. “It’s definitely made my job easier.”
The Huskies (5-1, 3-0) defeated UCLA 31-24 on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. Washington is ranked third nationally in points allowed (13.7 ppg), 13th in total yards allowed (304.5 ypg) and 18th in passing yards allowed (174.7 ypg).
“They’re a good team. I’m excited to go against a good team,” Washington quarterback Jake Browning told the Seattle Times when asked to look ahead to Oregon. “That’s pretty much all I have to say about it.”
Browning passed for 304 yards and was responsible for six touchdowns (four passing, two rushing) during his last visit to Autzen.
Herbert, who did not play in Oregon’s 38-3 loss last season in Seattle due to injury, has developed into a potential NFL first-round pick since his first game playing opposite Browning.
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound former standout at Eugene’s Sheldon High School was spectacular during the Ducks’ previous matchup against a top-10 team. Herbert completed 92.6 of his throws in regulation, passed for 346 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 35 net yards against a Stanford defense that was allowing just 7.7 points per game.
But a series of mistakes, including a high snap by veteran center Jake Hanson and a last-minute fumble by freshman running back C.J. Verdell, led to Oregon losing 38-31 in overtime.
“You’re going to hear me say it every single week — he just continues to elevate his game,” Cristobal said of Herbert. “He sees it, he sees the whole field. He’s a great decision maker, he does not get duped into disguise coverage.”
CBS Sports’ most recent NFL mock draft had Herbert going No. 12 overall in the draft to Denver, which would reunite him with Broncos rookie running back Royce Freeman. The same projection had Missouri’s Drew Lock as the first quarterback off the board at No. 9 to the New York Giants.
Cristobal has an open-door policy for scouts at the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, but that does not mean Herbert is a lock to leave after the season.
Herbert watched Marcus Mariota win the Heisman Trophy and lead the Ducks to a Pac-12 championship after returning as a redshirt junior for his fourth season in the program.
Mariota’s historic season led to being drafted by the Tennessee Titans with the No. 2 overall pick.
Herbert is committed to his academic pursuits and carried a 4.06 grade-point average in biology last year. Returning would also give him a chance to play with his brother, Sheldon High senior tight end Patrick Herbert, at Oregon in 2019.
“Is it out there? Of course it’s out there. And with social media that stuff blows up more and more,” Cristobal said of the potential NFL distractions. “We feel the team is grounded, as well as Justin. All that stuff will be taken care of when the time is right.”