When it comes to the most important position in college football, quarterback jumps to the top of the list. While that may not be certain for every team, it’s the case for Oregon.
Last year, Oregon’s season was derailed when starter Justin Herbert went down with a shoulder injury five games into the season. Replacing him was freshman Braxton Burmeister and the Ducks limped to a 1-4 record, seeing their once potent offense transform into one of the nation’s worst.
Herbert returned to lead the Oregon to a win in its final two games, proving that when healthy, he and the Ducks are among the nation’s elite.
Justin Herbert enters his junior year as the perennial starter, a Heisman trophy candidate and potential top pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Even with those accolades, Herbert has yet to play a full season at the collegiate level. He’s 8-6 as a starter after taking over halfway through his freshman season and battling injuries last year.
With Herbert leading the way, the Ducks are a different team after averaging 49.1 points and 516.5 yards per game. They went 6-2 last year when Herbert started, looking like a top-15 team in the nation.
The good news for Oregon is that Herbert looks poised for a big year, and not just because he’s bigger in stature. After arriving on campus two years ago, he gained 40 pounds and is now 6-foot-6, 240 pounds, ideal size for a prototypical NFL quarterback. Putting on weight was a big goal this offseason, wanting to be capable of taking more punishment while still being nimble enough to evade would-be tacklers.
"He's really prepared himself to take on — not that we're a quarterback running operation — but if he does have to carry the ball… he's able to withstand some of the punishment that comes with that," Oregon head coach Mario Cristobal said.
When Hebert went down, Burmeister took over and struggled moving the offense down the field. Unable to complete the simplest of throws, it appeared the speed and physicality of the college game was too much for him to handle.
But according to coaches and players, he has taken the next step in his development. Always a gifted runner, Burmeister is relying less on his legs and is more confident standing in the pocket and going through his progressions.
Redshirt freshman Mike Irwin ran the scout team offense last year and is expected to do the same this year.
Challenging Burmeister for the role of backup is freshman Tyler Shough, a blue-chip recruit from Arizona. Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 204 pounds, Shough reminds players of Herbert when the latter was a freshman.
Shough signed with Oregon during the early signing period, allowing him to enroll in January and participate in the annual spring game. He has shown flashes of starter-potential but like Burmeister last year, is still adjusting to the speed of the game and intricacies of the offense.
The Ducks will go as far as Herbert can take them. If he stays healthy and plays up to his potential, Herbert will have the Oregon offense operating among the nation’s best.
I expect Oregon to use Herbert less in the run game, not wanting to risk injury to its star. He should throw the ball between 25-30 times a game, making the Ducks a legitimate threat through the air, something they haven’t had since Marcus Mariota was running the offense.
"He's becoming a field general," Cristobal said of Herbert. "I think he was a quarterback last year — now he's a field general."
The battle for backup is intriguing and one of the biggest storylines to follow during fall camp.
Burmiester is in the incumbent and gets the initial nod but it’s not as clear-cut as that. He must show improved accuracy and spread the ball around, especially since Cristobal isn’t implementing a running-quarterback scheme.
Crisotbal’s offense is built for a player like Shough, someone with a strong arm and good smarts who would rather throw the ball than run it. If Shough can master the playbook and protect the ball, he will push Burmeister for the backup role.
My prediction is that Burmeister will get the nod if needed but will be on a short leash if Shough has proven capable. Preserving Shough’s redshirt could be huge for the Ducks since there’s an outside chance Herbert spurns the NFL Draft and returns for his senior year.
Projected Starter: Junior, Justin Herbert
Projected Backup: Sophomore, Braxton Burmeister — Freshman, Tyler Shough