Justin Herbert spurning the first round of the NFL Draft to return for his senior season rocked the Pac-12 world on Christmas Day and has made the Ducks the favorite to win the conference in 2019. Speculation had Herbert as the top QB on draft boards with a good chance at landing on the Giants where he would get to work with the likes of SaQuon Barkley and Odell Beckham Jr, but he’ll be back in Eugene for one last season, chasing college dreams and continuing a legacy of Pac-12 stars (particularly QBs returning for unexpected senior seasons).
The question now for Herbert is will it be worth it? A question that burns just a little bit more given the news that 2018’s surprise star return Bryce Love suffered an ACL tear as he finished up a nightmarish senior campaign when he likely could have been wrapping up his rookie season with checks from a first or second round draft selection being directly deposited into his bank account.
With this in mind, I wanted to go through the recent decisions of Pac-12 stars (mostly QBs) in semi-recent history who have turned down the chance to likely be a first round pick and come back for another season and rank them by how well the decisions paid off.
Keep in mind, I’m giving my overall verdict on “Good call” or “Bad call” on a combination of a business decision and a personal decision given on overall enjoyment.
We’ll go from best decision to worst decision.
Marcus Mariota QB Oregon 2011-2014 - Mariota took college football by storm as a redshirt freshman and had accomplished a career that most QBs would dream of by the time he finished his sophomore season, making him a great prospect for the 2014 Draft. He considered declaring, but chose to come back for his junior season, making the Ducks a preseason national title contender for 2014.
Mariota continued his dominance in 2014, leading the Ducks to a Pac-12 Championship and, a Heisman, and the Pac-12’ only Playoff win in a blowout of Florida State and Jameis Winston in the Rose Bowl. He was the second pick in the 2015 Draft going to the Titans.
Hard to say Mariota’s move was anything but a good call, with the only potential positive being that he could have ended up at a better franchise in the 2014 Draft and that he picked up some wear and tear in his last season at Oregon that might still be nagging him now.
Andrew Luck QB Stanford 2008-2011 - Luck came to Stanford as a golden boy recruit and lived up to the hype. He was all but guaranteed to be the top pick in the 2011 Draft after leading Stanford to a top five ranking and win in the Orange Bowl with an insane QB rating in his redshirt sophomore season. However, he put off the draft for a year and came back as a junior.
Luck was almost identical to 2010 in 2011 and led the Cardinal to a 11-2 record and a loss in the Fiesta Bowl while taking home a number of honors.
Luck’s junior season didn’t really accomplish anything that his sophomore season did and he still went number one overall in 2012 so it was really just a wash. I’ll give it a Good Call because there wasn’t really anything negative about it other than that he likely would have ended up on Carolina instead of Indianapolis had he left a year earlier.
Matt Leinart QB USC 2002-2005 - Leinart did about everything you could as a junior - won a Heisman, a national championship, and countless other honors while being pegged as the top candidate to be taken first overall in the 2005 Draft. The world was shocked when he decided to come back for his senior year and pursue another national championship and Heisman.
Leinart’s senior season couldn’t have gone much better, the only differences being slightly fewer touchdowns thrown, losing the BCS Championship Game, not winning the Heisman (to his teammate though), and giving NFL scouts a little more tape on him to help them question his arm strength.
He ended up going 10th in the 2006 Draft to Arizona and had a rather disappointing NFL career. I’ll give Leinart’s decision an overall Good Call. He was so close to a third-straight national championship, led USC to 12 wins and kept an incredible win streak alive and remained a Top 10 pick. His only real losses ended up possibly being going from a likely number one overall in 2005 to number 10 in 2006 and ended up on the Cardinals, instead of the 49ers.
Jake Locker QB Washington 2006-2010 - Locker was deemed as the savior of Washington in the dark days of the Tyrone Willingham era before he even took a snap as a starter. However, Locker’s first sophomore season ended early in the season due to injury and it led the Huskies going 0-12 and Willingham being fired. Things turned around for Locker and the Huskies in Steve Sarkisian’s first season in 2009 as he put together a nice year and led the Huskies to a 5-7 record, their best since 2003.
Locker’s physical abilities and solid onfield production in 2009 led to many pundits labeling him as one of the top QBs for the 2010 Draft and a potential top overall pick. The junior turned down the Draft though and came back for his senior season in a situation and move the reminds me a lot of the one Herbert is making.
2010 was tough personally for Locker as all his numbers went down and defenses showed again and again that he wasn’t a good pocket passer. However, his return pushed Washington to their first bowl in nearly 10 years and a big Holiday Bowl win, cementing him as a Husky legend. He was taken number eight by Tennessee in the 2011 Draft.
Locker may have cost himself from going as high as number two in 2010 and possibly to a better franchise than Tennessee, but overall it worked out for him, despite his struggles in 2010. Good Call.
Matt Barkley QB USC 2009-2012 - Barkley started at USC as a true freshman and led them to a breakout 10-2 season in 2011 where they were one of the nation’s best teams at the end of the season (though inelligable for bowl play) and Barkley one of college football’s brightest stars. He shocked the world by coming back for his senior season despite being projected as the top pick in the 2012 Draft and instantly made USC 2012’s preseason number one and Barkley the preseason Heisman favorite.
2012 ended up being a disaster for Barkley. USC went 7-6, his numbers went down, and he got hurt. He ended up sliding into the fourth round of the 2013 Draft and has bounced around the NFL since on various teams.
Barkley’s return ended up being a very bad decision. He’s the poster boy for why you don’t come back for another season when you’re slotted as a first-round pick, especially if you have a piece of your game that’s questionable (Barkley’s size).
Bryce Love RB Stanford 2015-2018 - Love had one of the strangest careers in Pac-12 history. He was a solid, but somewhat unremarkable backup to Christian McCaffrey as a freshman and sophomore and then had one of the most-unstoppable seasons a college back has ever had in 2017, rushing for more than 2,100 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns. Then, despite being a potential first-round pick, he came back for his senior season and didn’t even get close to 1,000 yards and scored just three TDs before tearing an ACL in his final regular season game.
Love was hurt for much of 2018, but he was really hurt for much of 2017 so it’s hard to just write off his 2018 struggles as being that simple. He’s now slated as being a third or fourth round pick and has another season of heavy wear and tear on him.
Like Barkley, this one was a clear bad call, at least in relation to playing professional football. Love torpedoed his draft stock and added more wear to an already battered body.