EUGENE — His stars won’t show up in the top-10 football recruiting class Oregon just signed, but getting Justin Herbert back for 2019 was the biggest win of the impending offseason for Ducks head coach Mario Cristobal.
We knew Cristobal could out-recruit USC and UCLA. Turns out he can out-recruit Jon Gruden and John Elway, too.
Herbert’s decision to forgo the NFL draft, announced Wednesday as the team departed for the Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, California, came as no surprise.
Word all year was that Herbert would strongly consider staying for his senior season. His injury history raised an element of uncertainty, but all along signs pointed toward Herbert sticking around for one more shot at a Pac-12 title.
Now it’s up to Cristobal, offensive coordinator Marcus Arroyo and Herbert’s supporting cast to make sure this gift does not go to waste.
Herbert’s decision brought to mind a similarly low-key announcement from Marcus Mariota five years ago.
When Mariota decided to stay at Oregon for his redshirt junior season, he set the stage for everything the Ducks would accomplish in the following year.
A conference championship. A Rose Bowl victory. A Heisman Trophy. A trip to the national title game. All of those things happened because Mariota decided the NFL could wait.
Is it fair to think Herbert’s return can have the same effect? The answer depends a lot more on the people around him than it does on Herbert himself.
Cristobal has stabilized Oregon’s program after two years of near-constant turmoil. He is recruiting at a level never before seen in Eugene.
The thing we still don’t know — the thing we still need to find out — is whether he can make Oregon a championship contender again.
The Ducks will have some issues to sort out after Monday’s bowl game.
Thankfully, finding a starting quarterback won’t be one of them. Even with Herbert coming back, Oregon has work to do in other areas before we can talk about the Ducks as a team capable of making the College Football Playoff or winning a Pac-12 title.
Oregon entered this season as top-25 team with an NFL draft pick at quarterback, a veteran offensive line and questions at running back and wide receiver.
The Ducks will enter next season as a top-25 team with an NFL draft pick at quarterback, a veteran offensive line and questions at running back and wide receiver.
You get the point, right?
Herbert’s return gives the Ducks an excuse to dream. For those dreams to be realistic, the Ducks need to make strides in the areas that held them back this season.
They will need to play better away from Autzen Stadium. They will need to finish higher than No. 62 in the FBS in total defense. They will need to iron out the identity issues that plagued their offense at times this season.
We know how Cristobal wants to play. He would like to build his offense around a bruising running attack and a group of maulers on the offensive line.
How will that philosophy evolve next season with Herbert coming back? That’s an important question, because it was clear in 2018 that the Ducks were not getting the most out of Herbert’s talent.
Herbert entered the season as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate. Stunningly, he was not even an honorable mention pick when the all-Pac-12 teams came out a few weeks ago.
That is not an accurate reflection of how Herbert played, but it does point to some underlying issues the Ducks need to address. Herbert completed 59.6 percent of his passes, which ranked in the bottom half of FBS starting quarterbacks. His receivers had too many drops, and the offensive scheme did not give him enough easy completions.
Assuming Dillon Mitchell comes back, the Ducks still need help at receiver. They will need a returning player like Bryan Addison to step up and a freshman or two to contribute. They may target a graduate transfer to provide what Tabari Hines was supposed to give them in 2018.
Had Herbert turned pro, 2019 could have been a rebuilding year for Cristobal, a chance to integrate those four- and five-star freshmen while looking for the Ducks’ next great QB.
Now there is urgency to take the next step, to make the most of Herbert’s senior season in the same way Oregon maximized Mariota’s return five years ago.
Elway and Gruden will have to look elsewhere for a starting quarterback in 2019.
Instead, it’s Oregon that is on the clock.