Saturday, March 17, 2012
Duck QBs: Is now the perfect time for ‘perfect fit’ Marcus Mariota to take over as the Ducks’ starting quarterback?
By Rob Moseley
Published: (Friday, Jan 20, 2012 05:14PM)Midnight, Jan. 19
A week ago, 2012 was setting up to be the fourth season in the last five that Marcus Mariota spent watching much more football than he played.
One major announcement by Darron Thomas later, and the next few months instantly held the potential for a whole lot more for the redshirt freshman. With Thomas passing up his senior season to make himself available for the NFL draft, Mariota will spend April’s spring practices, and beyond, competing with Bryan Bennett to start at quarterback for the Ducks.
Though Bennett seems the likely successor to Thomas after throwing passes in six games last season, sources have indicated to The Register-Guard that one factor in Thomas’ departure was the lack of a guarantee from UO coaches that he would be the starter as a senior. If such a promise wasn’t on the table for a player who went 23-3 in his career and led the Ducks to two BCS games, including a Rose Bowl win, then surely it isn’t for Bennett, when there’s yet another promising dual-threat quarterback in Mariota aching for a chance to show what he can do.
That desire was so great during 2011, Mariota said, that he would have welcomed the chance to come off the bench — redshirt be damned — at Colorado, the game Thomas missed with a knee injury and that Bennett left early after staking the Ducks to a big lead.
“Sitting out a year was tough,” said Mariota, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound native of Honolulu. “If I had that opportunity to play, I would risk a year for it. That’s why you came here, is to play.”
Languishing on the bench was nothing new for Mariota, who was a receiver as a kid, until he was forced to learn how to throw to play catch with his father, eventually blossoming into a quarterback while playing Pop Warner. As a sophomore and junior at the Saint Louis School, Mariota was the backup to Jeremy Higgins, who eventually moved on to Utah State before transferring back to Hawaii last year.
“Having to sit out and be patient, bide your time, it was a little adversity,” said Mariota, who leaned on his parents, Toa — a former rugby player — and Alana, for support.
Finally given the chance to start, Mariota took full advantage at Saint Louis in 2010. He was 165-of-255 passing for 2,597 yards and 32 touchdowns, with five interceptions, and put his 4.48-second speed in the 40-yard dash to use by rushing 60 times for 455 yards and seven touchdowns.
Mariota was a three-star prospect according to Rivals.com and Scout.com. But in Oregon’s eyes, given the way he fit into the Ducks’ spread-option scheme, Mariota was a five-star addition.
“He’s the perfect fit for what we do offensively,” UO coach Chip Kelly said on signing day a year ago.
Mariota said familiarity with the Ducks’ concepts, and the chance to both run and pass as a quarterback, attracted him to Oregon. So, too, did the chance to play with the other skill position players in his recruiting class, such as running back De’Anthony Thomas, tight end Colt Lyerla and a trio of talented receivers.
“It made it exciting,” Mariota said. “I don’t have to do much; I just have to get them the ball.”
If that wasn’t Mariota’s mindset before, it was after a season of watching Thomas play. Thomas’ ability to limit mistakes while allowing teammates to make plays was greatly admired by his young understudy.
“First downs are huge in this offense, just to get a rhythm going,” Mariota said. “Darron was always completing balls, getting it out to playmakers. Just get the ball to them, they’ll make plays.”
Though Mariota didn’t play in 2011, as the third-string quarterback he rotated into practices with Oregon’s two-deep rather than the scout team, and went to road games as a member of the travel squad.
With a laid-back, soft-spoken demeanor typical of the islands, Mariota learned he could still be a leader in college by setting a workmanlike tone through his actions, as Thomas and LaMichael James did.
“They worked hard, and that’s where you picked it up as a younger guy,” Mariota said. “You see the older guys working hard, and it pushes you to do better.”
This offseason, Mariota’s priority is to better establish himself as a leader with the Ducks, beyond just the guys in his recruiting class. He also wants to get a better grasp of Oregon’s offensive nuances; how to set protections at the line, for example, and how to respond to them in the pocket after the snap.
“If it so happens that I will play — or Bryan will play — I want to be ready, from a mental standpoint as well as physical,” Mariota said.
This winter, Mariota is throwing passes with Bennett and other skill position players about three times a week, for perhaps an hour at a time. He’s trying to bulk up a bit in the weight room, too; listed at 200 pounds, he sometimes dropped lower during the season but would prefer to play around 205 or 210. That’s enough bulk to withstand some pounding in the run game, but not so big that it will slow him down.
About all that does slow Mariota down these days is Oregon’s weather, the island kid not exactly loving rainy season. But he’s got a big support network on hand; no high school in the nation is better represented on the UO roster than the Saint Louis School, including Mariota and three walk-ons: offensive lineman Mana Greig, linebacker Isaac Ava and defensive back Bronson Yim.
“It’s awesome to have all of us here,” Mariota said.
Saint Louis was also the alma mater of former UO quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, who played there as a senior in 2005. Mariota was in seventh grade at the time.
“He used to come down and throw with us in the summer,” Mariota said. “He was a good guy. He always had a smile on his face, made sure everybody was having fun.”
At Oregon, of course, Masoli’s reputation has been tainted by the nature of his premature departure from the program, after a series of off-field transgressions. Mariota wears the same jersey number that Masoli did with the Ducks, No. 8, but there’s no connection there.
“Everyone always asks me that,” said a smiling Mariota, who has worn No. 8 since his Pop Warner days.
A year ago, Mariota was the No. 3 QB for the Ducks, and a week ago it looked as though that would be the case again. Now, No. 8 is shooting for No. 1, with a very real shot at the job.