Ducks offensive coordinator Matt Lubick visited Sheldon High School in the winter of 2014, on the hunt for potential players. The wide receiver coach at the time, Lubick was unable to find Sheldon head football coach Lane Johnson — he had left for the day — but instead ran into assistant coach Les Phillipo.
Lubick, who was coming off his first full season at Oregon and still unfamiliar with local high school talent, asked Phillipo if Sheldon had any good players from the past year. He had no idea that Sheldon’s quarterback, Kellen Strahm, had accounted for 3,300 yards of offense and 42 touchdowns that season and been named the Oregonian’s 2014-2015 Athlete of the Year.
He also had no idea that the Strahm had replaced the guy who would become Oregon’s quarterback, Justin Herbert.
Herbert was in the latter half of his junior year. He was several months removed from a horrendous injury that broke his leg and sidelined him two and a half games into Sheldon’s football season.
But what he had done in those two and a half games was nothing short of remarkable: He accounted for ten touchdowns and helped the Irish topple a Jesuit team that Strahm called “All-World.”
“Right when he stepped in as a junior, he took control of the offense,” Strahm said. “I was like, ‘You’re going to be something special.’
“Knowing him for all these years, there was something about him.”
Phillipo said the injury to Herbert had been “devastating” for his team, although Strahm’s performance did alleviate some of that pain.
When Lubick came knocking, Phillipo told him about Strahm. He also mentioned that they had Herbert, a junior quarterback who was coming back next season.
Lubick took note of it and left. That was the last time Phillipo heard from an Oregon coach for a while.
Before his injury, Herbert had received letters from some Division I programs, including a few Pac-12 schools.
After his injury, the letters stopped coming.
“Recruiting stopped,” Mark Herbert, Justin’s dad, said. “It came to a grinding halt.”
One school that remained with him, though: Montana State, a school his family had ties to. Herbert’s older brother, Mitchell Herbert, was a wide receiver for the Bobcats. Montana State coaches knew the family and knew Mitchell’s brother was talented. They thought Herbert could play quarterback for them after their current quarterback, Dakota Prukop, graduated.
But that idea was short-lived.
Whispers about Justin began to circulate again when Herbert’s leg healed. He finished out his junior year playing basketball and baseball, excelling in both. He seemed to have returned to his pre-injury form.
Boise State came down to see Herbert during the spring of his junior year. The Broncos were one of the first big programs to take serious interest in Herbert. According to Phillipo, they were “enthralled by Herbert” and returned a number of times to Sheldon to take video and watch him practice.
Shortly after Boise State expressed interest in Herbert, Washington Huskies offensive coordinator Jonathan Smith came down to check him out. The Huskies were very interested and invited him on two unofficial trips to Seattle, one in March of his junior year and the other in May.
Herbert sat through Washington quarterback meetings and practices. He met and talked with quarterback Jake Browning and head coach Chris Petersen. According to Mark Herbert, everything about the program was “first class.”
Phillipo said he thought Herbert and his family were serious about choosing Washington, and that they didn’t think Oregon was interested in him at the time.
“He was gonna be a Husky,” Phillipo said. “It sounded like he was really excited about them and their program up there and how awesome it was.”
Washington coaches had yet to actually see Herbert play, so the June after his junior year they invited him to several camps where he could showcase his skill. Herbert attended one of the camps, but wasn’t his usual explosive self. Doctors had just removed screws from his injured leg. He did some light throwing but was mostly immobile, Mark Herbert said.
That was the last time they heard from Washington.
During the Huskies’ recruitment of Herbert, Phillipo told family friend and Oregon assistant coach Steve Greatwood about their pursuit. That’s about the time when Oregon began to take Herbert seriously.
Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich doesn’t recall the exact moment that he first heard of Justin but does remember the “buzz” surrounding the phenom, as far back as his freshman year. He knew, “this guy is going to be something.”
“There was a long legend,” Helfrich said.
Three games into his senior campaign, Herbert got his first official offer from Nevada. The coaches had been keeping tabs on him and, like other schools, were waiting to see how he looked in his return to the gridiron.
They liked what they saw, flew to Eugene and offered him a scholarship on the spot. According to Mark Herbert, Nevada coaches told his son, “You’re our guy.”
It didn’t take long for Oregon to respond.
About four hours later, Helfrich and Herbert talked over the phone.
Herbert said in an interview with the Oregonian that he had been in communication with then offensive coordinator Scott Frost. Frost told Herbert to call Helfrich, who offered Herbert a scholarship.
“Once Oregon came, I had a feeling that he was gonna go there,” Strahm said.
In his final season at Sheldon, Herbert threw for 3,130 yards and ran for 543 more. He accounted for 47 total touchdowns and led the Irish to a 10-2 record.
Herbert committed to Oregon on Oct. 8, 2015. Exactly a year later, he was running out of the tunnel at Autzen as the starter against rival Washington, the school he once considered playing for. Herbert replaced Prukop as the starting quarterback to provide a “spark” to the struggling team.
The Huskies blew out Oregon, but Herbert showed flashes of what he can bring to this team. He finished 24-34 for 179 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.
Both Lubick and Helfrich praised his composure as a freshman going against one of the top defenses in the nation.
“Going against a great football team in your first game, there’s always things you can get better at,” Lubick said after the loss. “But I was very proud of the way he competed and his heart. He showed a lot of poise out there.”
“He’s got a big future,” Helfrich said.
The Ducks are winless in conference play, but hope Herbert can change that when the Ducks head to Cal on Oct. 21.