Football and school tie for the lead in Justin Herbert's playbook

Justin Herbert during a pass play

Even casual Oregon fans are familiar with the outlines of the Justin Herbert story.

A three-sport star at Eugene’s Sheldon High School, he was the first freshman to start at quarterback for the Ducks in more than 30 years. Last spring, he passed on a chance to be a first-round NFL draft pick so he could come back and play one more year at Oregon. Now a senior, he’s a Heisman hopeful with an NFL body and movie star hair who leads a powerful Oregon squad aiming for a Pac-12 title and more.

But what’s less well known about Herbert is that he is something of a nerd — a biology nerd specifically — and an academic star.

Now in his fourth season as the Ducks quarterback, the 6-foot-6, 237-pound Herbert has already completed his degree requirements and walked in last spring’s commencement ceremonies. He earned a degree in biology and finished with a 4.01 grade-point average, and his list of academic accomplishments rival his on-field feats.

He’s a two-time Academic All American first-team honoree and the reigning Google Cloud Academic All-America Team Member of the Year. He’s twice been named to the Pac-12 All-Academic first team. As a sophomore, he tutored fellow students in a demanding biology class.

Herbert said he’s proud of his academic achievements and attributes them to good study habits fostered by his parents.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “It’s a good product of all the hard work I’ve put in.”

Herbert is dedicated to football, but biology might be his first love.

“It really explains a lot of things that go on around us,” he said. “It explains how you breathe and how your cells work together. It explains everything, and I think it’s really cool to have an understanding of how things work.”

Growing up in Eugene, biology was always in the background, and in the backyard.

“I really grew up around biology,” he said. “My grandfather was a biology teacher and my father was a biology teacher.”

His paternal grandfather, Roger Herbert, was a biology teacher for 34 years at Sheldon High School, where he was also the track and field coach. His maternal grandfather, Rich Schwab, was a leading receiver for the Ducks in the early 1960s, and went on to coach football at Sheldon, Churchill and Marist high schools.

“He always had biology activities around the house,” Herbert said of his grandfather. “Growing up, we’d spend a lot of time over there just hanging out and learning from him.”

Justin Herbert in cap and gownHerbert and his brothers, Mitch and Patrick, raised a veritable Noah’s ark of animals in their grandfather’s backyard, including but not limited to hermit crabs, parakeets, quail, chickens, lizards and yes, ducks.

When he got to the UO, “I wanted to study something I was interested in, and biology was the best choice,” he said.

As a sophomore, Herbert served as a teaching assistant for Biology 212, a challenging class covering plant and animal physiology and development. Herbert had previously taken the class, and that spring he would attend classes and hold office hours twice a week to help fellow students understand some of the challenging concepts.

“It really helped me understand and master the stuff we talked about,” he said. “It was fun and I met some good people and really enjoyed the experience.”

It’s not easy playing quarterback for a Pac-12 school while also excelling in a demanding major, but Herbert said he’s figured out how to make it work.

“It’s really tough, but fortunately having these good (study) habits before coming to college was really helpful,” he said. “It’s football and school, those are the top two priorities here and everything else has to come after that.”

Herbert’s academic leadership extends to the football team as well. He’s known to compete with teammates for the best grades on the team.

“We definitely have a battle when it comes to team GPA and stuff like that,” said offensive lineman Calvin Throckmorton, a human physiology major and aspiring surgeon. “We compete.”

Senior tackle Brady Aiello roomed with Herbert last year and saw first-hand the work he puts in.

“I knew he was an amazing student, but living with him I actually saw what he does off the field and how much work he really puts in toward his studies and it’s very impressive,” he said. “He’s just grinding in his office. … Justin is very, very into his studies.”

Defensive tackle Drayton Carlberg said he appreciates Herbert’s leadership on the field and off.

“I’m not sure how he does it,” he said. “I’m pretty good in the classroom and for him to be a biology student and be a 4.0, that blows my mind. So I know that sets a standard for me, and I know it’s affecting everybody else on the team. He improves our culture as far as academics.”

With the bulk of Herbert’s academic rigors behind him, he can concentrate on playing football this fall, something he does very well.

He began this season having thrown a touchdown pass in 28 straight games, the longest such streak in the nation. His 63 career touchdowns at the start of the season placed him fifth in the nation among active players.

The Ducks enter the season with great expectations, and Herbert is expected to carry much of the load for a team aiming for a Pac-12 title and beyond.

“There’s going to be some times this year where a guy like that is going to have to take over a football game,” head coach Mario Cristobal said.

Herbert has matured not just as a player but also as a team leader, his teammates say. As a freshman, he led by example but didn’t speak up much.

“Each year, he’s becoming more and more confident,” senior lineman Shane Lemieux said. “He’s always been a leader by example, but now he’s a vocal leader too. He’s assertive now.”

“He’s a guy that everybody respects and listen to when he opens his mouth,” Throckmorton said.

—By Tim Christie, University Communications