Monday, April 9, 2012

Oregon quarterbacks Bryan Bennett, Marcus Mariota work to improve through competition

The Oregon quarterback candidates show different strengths

By Rob Moseley

The Register-Guard

Published: (Monday, Apr 9, 2012 10:04AM)Midnight, April 8

When Bryan Bennett was redshirting just after his arrival at Oregon in 2010, he had a front-row seat for the quarterback competition between Darron Thomas and Nate Costa.

Like any good college student, Bennett took notes, which the sophomore is referring to this spring as he faces his own test with the starting job on the line.

“I learned to just worry about what I’m doing, and focus on what I’m doing and what we’re doing as a team, rather than the competition,” said Bennett, who is sharing first-team reps with redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota for the Ducks this spring. “I think that was helpful.”

Bennett and Mariota led the UO football team through its fourth and final workout of the first week of spring drills Saturday, and the second in full pads. After working on red-zone scenarios Friday, there was an emphasis on third-down conversions Saturday, and a period spent digging the offense out of a hole when backed up to its own end zone.

If those situations have yielded a leader between Bennett and Mariota, nobody was saying so Saturday. They continue to split reps evenly, both said, and play with various different teammates on the first and second string.

“It’s good to get chemistry with everybody,” Mariota said. “That’s just how we’ve been doing it.”

Oregon coach Chip Kelly betrayed little of his evaluation process regarding the two quarterbacks so far, stressing that he feels no pressure to pick a starter until the Ducks approach their opening game in September.

“I love that part of it,” Kelly said. “… They’re both better after practice four than they were after practice one, and that’s what we’re asking them to do.”

Neither has had the luxury of throwing to the team’s two most experienced receivers. Josh Huff and Justin Hoffman have been limited to mentoring duty so far, Hoffman said Saturday, with Hoffman not even suiting up because of repeated concussions that have his availability for the fall in question. Huff has been dressing for practice at least, but is presumably still recovering from the leg fracture he played through last fall.

That has given Hoffman ample chance to evaluate the quarterbacks. He noted Bennett’s obvious edge in experience, while saying Mariota has some impressive physical attributes — “he’s pretty quick,” Hoffman said.

Mariota played in an offense similar to Oregon’s while in high school. His grasp of the quarterback’s responsibilities, “from the zone read to the pass concepts, it’s all been pretty good,” Mariota said. Setting pass protection calls for the offensive line has come slower.

“But that’s stuff you can learn and pick up,” Mariota said. “Every day I try to get better.”

Both quarterbacks spent the winter working to establish themselves as leaders on the team. Bennett said the fruits of those efforts have been apparent this month.

“I think that helped, for myself, mainly just working so hard in knowing what we’re doing,” Bennett said. “Knowing when to put your arm around a guy, knowing when to tell them where they need to line up and what they need to do. So working on that in the offseason is benefiting now that we’re in practice.”

The quarterbacks had a chance to demonstrate their leadership Saturday, when the receiving corps struggled with some drops.

“We just need to continue working with those guys and let them get comfortable,” Bennett said. “I think that will come with practice.”

Added Mariota: “Sometimes the ball was a little outside or a little low. Sometimes those are tough catches. You can’t really be too hard on them for dropping them.”

Two different quarterbacks, two varied responses. But while everybody else will continue comparing Bennett and Mariota until a starter is named, the two are doing their best to avoid any controversy.

“We’re not going to let that get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish as a team,” Bennett said. “… Right now we’re comfortable, and we’re just going to continue to get better.”

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