Justin Herbert seemed like a lock to go high in the 2019 NFL Draft. A tall, athletic passer out of Oregon with an arm that can make any throw, Herbert was frequently discussed as a top-5 pick and a potential franchise signal caller for a team with a need at the position.
This is what made it so surprising when Herbert bucked conventional wisdom and opted to return to Eugene for his senior season. Things worked out pretty well for Herbert on the field — the Ducks went 12-2, winning the Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl — and last week, the Los Angeles Chargers used the No. 6 pick to snag Herbert with the hopes that he can turn into the team’s quarterback of the future.
While it happened a year later than most predicted, Herbert’s NFL career is ready to begin. But first, Herbert, Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb, and Cardinals do-everything defender Isaiah Simmons picked up their various gaming controllers and played Madden with some fans as part of EA Sports’ Stay and Play initiative over the weekend. Uproxx Sports spoke to Herbert prior to the promotion taking place about Madden, getting drafted, how he’s started to prepare for life as an NFL quarterback, and much more.
What do you have going on with Madden?
So this week, I’m excited to team up with EA’s Stay and Play initiative and play some fans in Madden NFL 20, which is free play this weekend to celebrate the NFL Draft. Fans that play the free trial this weekend can also get a special Madden Ultimate Team pack with me. Really looking forward to getting onto this and playing some Madden, it’s been a while since I’ve gotten a chance to play, so looking forward to it.
The initiative is a really cool idea, why’d you wanna be part of it?
— Madden NFL 20 #StayandPlay (@EAMaddenNFL) April 25, 2020
I’ve always been a big Madden player, and the chance for me to go play some Madden was an opportunity that I couldn’t turn down. Always fired up to be a part of it and wanted to get introduced to the fans and play some football with them as well.
I once asked JuJu Smith-Schuster about this and he told me Madden has helped him get better at reading defenses, especially pre-snap. Have you ever taken anything from Madden and found a way to apply that on the field?
I have not yet but there are so many different defenses, offenses in the game that you do kind of learn stuff from there. Just playing defense, I do get a better feel for the zones that they’re playing or the concepts, so it can be helpful at times.
Let’s talk ball a bit. It’s been a years-long process for you, how does it feel to officially be an NFL player?
I can’t wait. It’s been such a great opportunity, just to go through these past few months of training and working hard, a lot of hard work is paying off. Couldn’t be more thankful for the University of Oregon for all they’ve done for me, my family for sticking there with me, and my teammates.
You famously came back for your senior year. Looking back and considering where you are now, why was that the right move for you?
I knew that coming back was a decision I wanted to make because I wanted to finish the year off with the senior class that we came in with. Those guys, we all came in and we went 4-8 my freshman year, to turn it around and go 12-2 this past year, win a Rose Bowl, meant a lot to us. I wanted to become a better quarterback, better teammate, better leader, better friend, these are all things that I sent out to do and I feel really comfortable sitting here telling you I did those things this year.
Over the last year — the season with Oregon, the draft process, the combine, all these things — what area of your game have you focused on working on the most? Has your focused evolved from one thing to the next as you’ve started getting into this NFL process?
Yeah, I’d say over the past year or so, I’ve been working a lot on footwork and mechanics, especially taking snaps from under center, never having done that before prior to these months of training. I really had to get that in and there’s a lot of mechanics stuff with my throwing motion that I’ve fixed and I’m doing a good job of working on right now, so these are a lot of things that I’m looking forward to working on.
I’m glad you mentioned your footwork, especially under center, because at the combine you told NBC that that’s been your big focus for however long. How’s that coming along and what have you been doing to refine that?
It’s just being comfortable with it. It takes repetition, it takes practice to continue working on it. I’m gonna get better at it, and some small points that I’m looking at are really getting tagged. Take big steps early on and getting out from under center, sometimes those linemen, they move around and I’ve got to get out from underneath them. I think those are some of the things — keeping my head straight, keeping it level, and having a fluid, comfortable drop.
Oregon QBs in recent years are known for how good they are with their legs — Dennis Dixon, Darron Thomas, Marcus Mariota, those sorts of guys. You’re more of a good passer with good mobility. We saw some comfort with running the ball and reading edge guys in the Rose Bowl, and with NFL offenses embracing dynamic skill sets from QBs, how important is continuing to develop that part of your game?
I think it’s huge, I think it changes the game and, kinda like in the last few games of the year, the read concepts really gave us an advantage in those games. We knew kinda going into those games, the way their defensive ends played, it’d give us an advantage. It’s a really underrated part of the game and it can be really helpful at times.
The Pac-12 Network made a video where a bunch of conference legends congratulated you, and you got a little emotional when we saw this outstanding message that Joey Harrington sent you. Could you talk about Joey and what he means to you as a guy you idolized as a kid?
Growing up watching Joey, we had his jersey, was just such a big fan of his. He’s been there ever since day one, especially even when we went 4-8 that one year, he was there, he was reaching out, and he’s been true ever since. His support has meant the world to my family and I. He’s always been there and says such nice things and gives great advice, I’ve really leaned on him these last couple years.
What’s the best advice that he’s given you, whether it’s related to football or something unrelated?
He really just tells me to do my best. That’s all you can ask for — doing your best, being a good person, and everything else will come. You can’t get too worried about all these extra distractions and things that take away from your focus, but it’s all about football, doing your best, and at the end of the day, you can’t ask for anything more than that.
Let’s talk NFL for a second, what is it about the Chargers that makes you believe you’re going somewhere where you can succeed?
I think they’ve got a lot of athletic skill players. They have probably one of the best rosters in the country and they’ve got a great coaching staff, an unbelievable defense, and I know that they’re all thrilled and fired up for me playing for the Chargers. I couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity.
You’re going to something of a unique situation because not all rookie quarterbacks are lucky enough to go to a place where there’s a guy like Tyrod you can learn from. What do you hope to learn from him once you’re able to get to LA?
Whatever I can. He’s had a lot of success and he’s been in the league for a long time, and that doesn’t happen by accident. So I’m gonna go there, I wanna compete with him, I wanna push him, just like I’d want from him, and I’m gonna do my best to learn from him and be the best quarterback that I can be.
I know that you’re in the now and you’re in the midst of one of the high points of your life, but look down the road 15-20 years, what needs to happen for you to say “I had a successful NFL career”?
I need to keep doing the right things on and off the field. I need to work hard, I need to prepare like I have been, I need to get better, take a lot of the things that I’ve been working on and continue to listen to coaches and do by best.
In that NBC video, I remember you mention an interest in possibly being a football coach some day. Is it important to you to be able to give back to the next generation of football players whenever the time may come for you to do that?
I think it’d be huge. I think football is one of the greatest sports on this planet, and to give the same feelings to others that I’ve felt playing this game is a goal of mine. I want to be around this game for as long as I can, and when I’m done playing, I hopefully will be able to coach it.
Two final questions. One, you’re someone who studied general sciences with a bio emphasis and we’re living in the midst of a pandemic, what’re your thoughts on what’s going on as someone who can view it as a more scientifically-inclined point?
I wasn’t too much into biology, or pathogens and things like that. My older brother would probably be the one to ask about that, he’s the one going to medical school and he’s got a much better feel for it. I can only tell you more about organisms and things like that, this isn’t too much of my specialty.
Totally cool. My final question, there are a bunch of dudes at Oregon I wanna ask you about. I know the goal is for the Chargers to not have a record where you can get him, but because he’s going to join you in being a top-10 pick soon, what makes Penei Sewell so special?
Yeah, he is an incredible human being. He’s a great guy, he moves about as well as anybody I have ever seen. To move like that and be that size is a rare combination. He works extremely hard and he’s done everything right on the field. When he gets on the field, he’s a different animal, one of those guys that you’re just so happy that he’s on your team and blocking for you. It’s been an honor to play with him, I can’t wait to watch him for these next couple of years.