EUGENE, Ore. -- Among the dusty hayfields and wild blackberry patches escorting the tranquil Willamette River, a willow-wild NFL prospect is blossoming this summer at the University of Oregon.
Scouts from every NFL team are already trickling through this college town, focusing first on the Ducks' talented seniors before succumbing to their curiosity and turning toward true junior quarterback Justin Herbert, the most gifted passer eligible for the 2019 draft.
(NFLDraftScout.com rates Herbert as the top junior quarterback prospect, ahead of Auburn's Jarrett Stidham and Michigan's Shea Patterson, among others.)
Representatives from the Chicago Bears, the Los Angeles Chargers and the Los Angeles Rams elected to huddle near the passers during most of Thursday's practice -- including the 90 minutes after beat writers and other local media were kicked out and I was asked to stop filming.
It is easy to see why scouts are already enamored with the young quarterback.
At a strapping 6-foot-5, 233 pounds, Herbert stands conspicuously above most of his teammates. As he goes through his third camp with the Ducks, his rocket right arm and smooth athleticism are just as obvious, as is the leadership role of the nearby Sheldon High School product.
Herbert, who enters the 2018 season with 12 starts under his belt, led every drill and even directed the team's breakdown at the start of practice, excitedly pointing out and shouting to individual teammates as the entire team circled him.
"You're going to have your best day today!" Herbert shouted, pointed and turned, repeating the encouragement to a handful of other teammates as nearly 100 players encircled him.
Soon after, Herbert's words were drowned out by a chant of D-U-C-K-S from the team before hip-hop lyrics regained their blast from speakers set all over Hatfield-Dowlin Complex, a part of one of the more majestic football facilities in the entire country.
Herbert was only asked to make a handful of throws covering longer than 10 yards during the portion of practice in which I was allowed to film. It was easy to see his efficient throwing motion (including a snappy release for such a long-limbed quarterback), as well as his touch on some lofts into the left corner of the end zone.
Not surprisingly, new head coach Mario Cristobal turned up the intensity and complexity of Oregon's practice after this portion ended.
It was then that Herbert really showed his exceptional talent, deftly sliding up and around the pocket and firing several accurate deep balls, including at least one touchdown to fellow junior Dillon Mitchell, a 6-2, 189-pounder expected to become a go-to target this year.
Longtime Oregon observers believe Herbert has a stronger arm than predecessor Marcus Mariota, which can be fighting words in a community that still, rightfully, reveres the 2014 Heisman Trophy winner.
Herbert's obvious velocity stands out in person.
Like a lot of strong-armed quarterbacks, Herbert looks most comfortable firing fastballs, and his accuracy on intermediate and deep breaking routes will generate excitement in the scouting community, similar to what we saw a year ago with Josh Allen (Wyoming), the No. 7 overall pick by Buffalo. He is not (yet?) as accurate as Mariota, which might surprise some, given Herbert's impressive career completion percentage (65.3 percent).
These are numbers inflated by the variety of quick screens and dump-offs to backs key to the Ducks' notoriously high-octane offense, just as they did Mariota's completion percentage (66.8 percent) under Chip Kelly and Mark Helfrich, now the offensive coordinator with the Chicago Bears.
Herbert does show good awareness of his receivers, using the vantage point his prototypical frame (behind a massive offensive line) provide to scan the field, frequently looking one direction in an attempt to influence defenders before turning and firing passes the opposite way.
His ability to manipulate defenders is encouraging, but Herbert is still more pupil than master in this regard. One late, short throw to the perimeter was nearly intercepted and returned for a touchdown midway through practice, prompting encouragement from coaches to "move on to the next play."
Herbert also has a tendency to guide the ball on throws that require taking something off, too often forcing receivers into jump-ball situations. This was the case on the final throw of a spirited scrimmage against a freely substituting defense to cap practice Thursday.
After marching the Ducks quickly downfield, Oregon's offense was stymied on three consecutive plays once it entered the red zone. On fourth down, Herbert lofted a fade toward the left pylon similar to the ones he was practicing earlier in the day.
The ball was good enough to be caught and was thrown closer to me than any other pass Herbert lofted all morning. It looked like the perfect exclamation point to cap practice.
Toolsy senior cornerback Haki Woods Jr. used his 6-3 frame to break up the potential reception, leaving the Ducks' defense with the final victory on this day.
Forgive this longtime scout for a football cliche, but I couldn't help but think how Herbert's final toss also encapsulates him as a current NFL prospect -- close but not quite complete.
Of course, Herbert has the entire 2018 season (and perhaps 2019) to improve. With the pecking order at quarterback for next spring's draft much less settled than a year ago, Herbert's development this season could be among the biggest storylines to follow in all of college football.