Ducks' Herbert takes lead while out
EUGENE — Willie Taggart looked on with a smile as Justin Herbert feathered a series of deep passes into the arms of wide receivers during practice this week.
Oregon’s starting quarterback looks as good as ever wearing a red non-contact jersey over his shoulder pads.
But how does Herbert feel less than four weeks after suffering a fractured collarbone?
Herbert didn’t run through the padded tackling dummies with the other signal-callers during the portion of practice on Tuesday open to the media.
During a routine drill, when players tried to strip the football from temporary starter Braxton Burmeister and backup Taylor Alie, a team manager playfully swiped at the 6-foot-6, 225-pound Herbert.
“He was throwing dimes out there,” Taggart said on the Pac-12 coaches teleconference. “That was neat to see. He’s eager to get back out on the field.”
Taggart still plans to ride with Burmeister until Herbert is healthy.
Oregon will host Utah, which ranks third in the Pac-12 in total defense, on Saturday at Autzen Stadium (2:45 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).
“Justin is doing a good job of mentoring Braxton and keeping him calm,” Taggart said when asked about Herbert’s role during his recovery. “He’s so eager to get back out there. It’s cool to see, it’s nice to see that he really wants to be out there.
“You hurt for him because it’s killing him inside not to be able to be out there to help his teammates and to see where we’re at right now. It really does bother him. He’s trying every which way to get back out there.”
The Ducks (4-4, 1-4) are 0-3 without Herbert in the starting lineup.
Burmeister has had success running the ball, including three rushing touchdowns, but the true freshman has one touchdown pass and five interceptions during a painful Pac-12 initiation.
“Historically, at the quarterback position, it’s a gradual climb,” quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo said. “Usually there’s no ‘aha’ moment early on. For guys who show up on the scene like Aaron Rodgers that were all of a sudden a starter and great ... those guys were backups for six or seven years behind a Hall of Famer. …
“A gradual climb at the quarterback position is pretty standard. We just have to put enough things around (Burmeister) to help out.”
Coaches and teammates describe Burmeister, who Oregon does not make available for interviews, as a strong, silent type, much like Herbert.
“He’s real cerebral, laid back, just comes to work,” running backs coach Donte Pimpleton said. “You don’t hear too much from him.”
Taggart challenged Herbert to become more vocal this season. The former Sheldon High standout should have plenty of advice to offer Burmeister after being thrust into the spotlight midway through last season as a true freshman.
“Tremendous leadership,” offensive line coach Mario Cristobal said of Herbert’s contributions to the team since his injury. “He coaches the younger guys, he’s always involved in every meeting, all the film sessions that we have, which is a part of his growth, too, now. He’s only a sophomore, he’s got a lot of growth to do as well.
“We always tell the guys that get hurt: You will never have this time again. Time to sit back and assess yourself and take a deep dive into the things you can do better. Justin has been doing that not only with himself but with the younger players.”
Even when Herbert replaced Dakota Prukop after a rocky start to the 2016 campaign, the Ducks were never able to turn things around while stumbling to a 4-8 finish.
The year’s team is more optimistic about ending Taggart’s first season on a high note, perhaps because it appears Herbert will return at some point.
Alie said before last week’s 31-14 loss at UCLA that Herbert was determined to “make sure the team is still cohesive and stuck like glue rather than dividing.”
Herbert has completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 1,264 yards with nine touchdowns and two interceptions this season.
Arroyo joked that Burmeister, who has completed 52.9 passes for only 246 yards, will be shipped back to his hometown of San Diego as soon as No. 10 is healthy again.
“We move forward, and Braxton stays right in the mix and continues to move on,” Arroyo said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Right now, Braxton is rolling, and we’re good to go.”