Barry Wong / Special to the Sun
Friday, Oct. 11, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The question is simple enough. To the point and uncomplicated, at least in the beginning.
After years of disappointment, seasons spent living a quarterback’s nightmare, it becomes more difficult to parse out. The losses, sacks, interceptions and even a position change have a way of clouding a player’s certainty. He can forget the answer until he’s forced to really consider the question.
Why did you start playing football?
That’s what Mike Herring Jr. asked his younger brother, Caleb Herring, earlier this year. Caleb Herring had recently finished his redshirt junior season at UNLV — a third straight two-win campaign — and his football future looked bleak.
As a sophomore, he started eight games at quarterback and bottomed out midway through the year. Last season, he slipped down the depth chart behind then-redshirt freshman Nick Sherry and spent most of his time at receiver.
His career at quarterback seemingly over, Caleb Herring had a hard time moving forward. He talked to his parents and siblings, wondering whether one more year of this was worth it. That’s when Mike Herring Jr. asked his uncomplicated question to a man in search of an answer.
Caleb Herring’s response improbably started him down a road to the nation’s best completion percentage and UNLV’s first three-game winning streak since 2003. Over the past three games, he’s completed 75.6 percent of his passes (62-of-82) for 699 yards and eight touchdowns with no turnovers.
A victory Saturday against Hawaii (0-5, 0-3), in a game that kicks off at 5 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium, would leave the Rebels (3-2, 1-0) two wins away from eligibility for their first bowl game since 2000.
“When I thought back to why I started playing and the enjoyment I got out of football, I thought, ‘It makes sense to not give up,’ ” Caleb Herring said. “ ‘Why would I give up?’ ”
The field was a starting point for everybody
Mike Herring Sr. could see his kids playing through the window. Their housing complex in Moreno Valley, Calif., featured a large field — two soccer pitches together — directly across the street. It was the perfect setting for five kids who today could form a formidable coed basketball team.
Siblings Mike Jr., Caleb, Alycia, Tamara and Jacoby spent days and nights running around that field with their cousins and kids from throughout the city playing all manner of games.
“The field was a starting point for everybody. You could establish what sport everybody was going to do,” said Alycia Herring, a senior sprinter and jumper at Arizona State. “It was a tradition.”
Caleb started playing flag football at age 8 or 9 and worked his way up as a running back. Out on that field he was Marshall Faulk, but as he continued to grow up and not out it became apparent he was destined for quarterback.
“I could always throw it,” said Caleb, who’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds.
Natural ability runs in the family. Tamara Herring is a sophomore basketball player at Mt. San Jacinto junior college in California, and Jacoby Herring is a 6-4 junior receiver at Citrus Hill High, where Caleb was starred.
Mike Sr. played quarterback his senior year at Long Beach Poly and played basketball for a couple of seasons at Northern Arizona. The Herring matriarch, Michelle, was a dancer and gifted the boys height courtesy of her biological father, who happens to live in Las Vegas.
The oldest sibling, Mike Jr., was the one most in the family pegged for athletic stardom. Caleb said that when the kids were called in from the field, someone would come in with an attitude and another would be eager to rub it in. Mike Jr. usually did the rubbing.
Mike Sr. said his eldest son was getting interest from several schools, including UNLV and then-coach Mike Sanford, but it didn’t pan out.
“He didn’t take care of business in the classroom,” Mike Sr. said.
Caleb has followed through in that area — he’s close to completing a degree in psychology — and his older brother is in the same Las Vegas apartment to enjoy it with him. Mike Jr. has a job in Las Vegas and he’s taking classes, neither of which prevents him from waiting for Caleb on a Sunday morning with UNLV’s stats laid out ready to discuss the game.
Lately, those have been fun discussions. After Sherry’s disastrous start, Herring got the nod at quarterback and has exploded through the lean section of UNLV’s schedule, completing a Division I-leading 75 percent overall. In his lone season as the primary starter, Caleb completed less than 55 percent of his passes and had nearly as many interceptions (six) as touchdowns (eight).
Everyone in the family looked up to Caleb before this season. Now they’re enjoying others seeing what they used to see out on the field.
“We’re a tight-knit family. All of us are experiencing this together,” Mike Sr. said. “I think this is vindication.”
That was the low
In four years as the Citrus Hill High quarterback, Herring played in three offenses: the wing-T option, a wing/spread hybrid and a full spread. It was good preparation for college, where he’s had four coordinators in five seasons.
Herring threw for more than 3,000 yards his senior year and went undefeated his last two seasons of high school. After that, a losing locker room felt bizarre, like an American walking around England where they speak the same language but the phrases, in this case things like "We’ll get them next time," sound foreign.
Herring was learning a spread, no-huddle offense as a redshirt under Sanford, who was fired at the end of the 2009 season. In came Bobby Hauck from Montana and Herring decided to stick around, transitioning to a mostly pro-style offense under then-offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie.
In 2010, Herring threw four touchdowns as a backup, and in 2011, he won the job over Sean Reilly and Taylor Barnhill. Herring had an up-and-down start. Then in Week 4, just more than two years ago, he threw three interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and was sacked four times in a 41-16 loss to Division I-AA Southern Utah.
“That was the low, but the low pretty much continued through the Reno game,” he said, referring to his 1-for-14 performance in UNLV’s 37-0 rivalry loss two weeks later. “The doubt started to creep in.”
He finished that season injured and entered the offseason with Sherry waiting in the wings. When it became apparent Sherry would win the battle, Herring changed positions to get on the field.
“It’s hard not to look at it as ‘You failed,’ ” he said. “That’s how I started to think while I was at receiver: I failed at quarterback and receiver was Plan B.”
His family witnessed that internal struggle, but Rebels coaches and teammates said then and now that Herring was always positive about the switch. In his receiving debut against Washington State, Herring caught five passes for 68 yards and finished the year with 18 catches for 136 yards.
“It takes a lot of character to want to help the team like that,” Sherry said. “He always had a great attitude about it.”
The former quarterback was still UNLV’s best option at backup, so when Sherry went down near the end of the year, in came Herring. He ran a mostly pistol offense under coordinator Brent Myers. In his lone start against Wyoming, Herring completed 22-of-36 for a then-career-high 268 yards with a costly fumble in a close loss.
That seemed like his final act at quarterback. He entered spring on the receiver depth chart and figured to be at best a third-string emergency quarterback.
“We had Nick and Troy (Hawthorne) playing quarterback in the spring,” said first-year offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach. “That was it.”
That was Herring’s decision time. He has interests outside of sports, so walking away seemed possible.
Though he said he can watch "SportsCenter" on loop and debate sports all day, Herring is just as likely to debate politics at home with Mike Jr. or the value of psychology vs. sociology with his fiancee, whom he met in a sociology class.
“He was always the one who has a philosophical thought,” Mike Sr. said.
What kept him going was his brother’s reminder and his own determination to finish what he started.
“If you keep working at things, you tend to get better,” Hauck said. “It’s people who give up and quit on things who don’t have success.”
Herring wouldn’t do that, and now he’s recognized and hears from students he doesn’t know. At most universities, the starting quarterback would expect to get that kind of attention, but at UNLV it’s not the norm.
“Now it’s not just a quiet walk through campus,” he said.
How did Herring get here?
He was a quarterback all along
Once he decided to stick around, Herring’s transformation from also-ran receiver to team leader started with luck: Sherry and, specifically, Hawthorne weren’t playing very well at the beginning of spring. The Rebels needed help.
“It was evident we needed his experience,” Rosenbach said. “We decided to get him back in the mix after spring break.”
Herring said: “I left quarterback on a sour note, feeling like I failed and I couldn’t do it anymore. Coming back through spring, summer and fall, I got confidence back watching film and seeing that some of the stuff I was doing was good.”
Hawthorne eventually moved to safety, and although Herring often looked like he was outplaying Sherry in practice, few believed the competition was as open as Hauck made it sound. If Sherry had just been mediocre early on, he may still be the starter, but it was a terrible first half against Arizona — two interceptions returned for touchdowns and a fumble returned inside the 10-yard line — that necessitated a change.
Herring played the second half of that game and, after Sherry’s first and only pass attempt against Central Michigan was intercepted, the senior again took the helm. With less than two minutes to play in the first half, Herring completed a 50-yard pass to junior receiver Devante Davis. Three plays later, the duo connected on a 12-yard score.
And, in the words of New Mexico coach Bob Davie, “They’ve been on fire ever since.”
Davie saw that up close Sept. 28 when the Rebels lifted the weight of a 23-game road losing streak with a 56-42 victory. That was the most points UNLV had scored since 1980.
Davis caught three of Herring’s four touchdown passes in that game. Once part of the same receiving corps, the duo has connected for 312 yards and six touchdowns over the winning streak.
“He was a quarterback all along,” Rosenbach said of Herring.
Rosenbach’s read-option offense is a big part of this success, though he pointed out that Herring doesn’t keep the ball much. His athleticism is enough to make defenses respect the quarterback keeper, and with Davis and junior receiver Marcus Sullivan on the outside, Herring is always a threat to keep the ball and throw to one of his targets. Defenders are often forced to adequately scheme only one option or the other on a given play.
With an extra week to soak in all the sudden excitement and expectations around the program, there’s certainly some concern about a letdown.
“We’re 3-2 and we want to get to 4-2,” said Hauck, whose team is favored by 10 this weekend. “Let’s not make more of it than it is.”
As much as they’re enjoying this — in addition to on-campus recognition, there’s a notable bounce to the Rebels’ steps around the athletic facilities — nobody’s content with improving last year’s victory total by one. They didn’t wait this long to win three games. In fact, they have their eyes on an extra game down the road.
“It’s something we all feel and think about, but we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves,” Herring said. “It’s a fine line of knowing it’s a possibility and keeping it where it’s supposed to be, which is at the end of the season.”
No one element is responsible for UNLV’s current success. After all, the Rebels have a realistic shot at a bowl game in large part because the Mountain West is struggling, and Herring is the quarterback in part because Hawthorne struggled in the spring. A lot of this is luck, or serendipity if you prefer.
So, yes, there's no one answer for this. But deep down, Herring knows there was only one answer he could give his brother. And because of that, UNLV football is fun again.