Friday, July 20, 2012
Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett are playing it cool before their QB battle comes to a boil in August
A simmering summer for Oregon’s quarterbacks
By Rob Moseley
Published: (Thursday, Jul 19, 2012 01:33PM)Midnight, July 19
After observing quarterbacks at the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana last week, analyst Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com came away impressed by Oregon sophomore Bryan Bennett, who was working as a camp counselor for the second time.
Jeremiah, formerly a scout for three pro teams, wrote later of Bennett’s strong arm, long stride and peak conditioning, also noting that his “footwork is raw and his delivery can get a little long.”
While redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota remained in Eugene leading the Ducks’ summer workouts, Bennett was making a strong impression at the Manning camp.
“Bennett has a lot of tools to work with and I’m anxious to see how the position battle shakes out in Eugene,” Jeremiah wrote on NFL.com.
In that sentiment, Jeremiah isn’t alone — there are only, oh, tens of thousands of Oregon fans anxious to see as well. The wait continues for at least a couple more weeks, as Bennett and Mariota lead the Ducks through their final voluntary workouts of the summer before taking a break before the start of preseason camp in August.
“There may be some things you can do in the weight room or something, as far as pushing each other, but mostly it’s, ‘Let’s try to get the team ready for fall camp,’ ” Bennett said this week after returning from Louisiana.
Interviewed last week, Mariota also said there’s been no notion of a quarterback competition during the summer.
“You can’t really look at it that way,” Mariota said. “You’re just trying to get better as a team. Fall camp will really tell the tale for us.”
Finding their footing
For Bennett, 20, and Mariota, 19, there’s still plenty of room for personal growth without the added motivator of a quarterback competition.
Each said he’s a more comfortable, confident player than at this time a year ago.
“Last year I came in just trying to figure out where I fit in, and if this was the right decision in my life,” Mariota said. “Now I have to step up and be a leader.”
His spring game performance assured that. After redshirting the 2011 season, Mariota entered spring drills as the challenger to Bennett for the job of replacing Darron Thomas as Oregon’s starting quarterback. Bennett had the edge in experience, after his relief performance against Arizona State and start at Colorado as a redshirt freshman, but Mariota kept up the pressure through 14 practices and then got the better of the spring game.
Afterward, the mellow Mariota took his big day in stride. Bennett, more apt to wear his emotions on his sleeve, was dejected. His frustrations were apparent, both to his teammates and with the media.
“That was more upsetting to me than throwing two picks,” Bennett said this week. “But I’m happy it happened then, rather than during the season. I can guarantee that’s not going to happen again.”
Bennett said he gained confidence from his second trip to the Manning camp, holding his own against some of the top college quarterbacks in the country, including his roommate, Tyler Bray of Tennessee, and their suite-mate Matt Barkley of USC.
Bennett also had a conversation with New York Giants practice squad member Ryan Perrilloux, whose message was “be confident in yourself, and confident in what you’re doing.”
In his last preseason camp, Bennett pressed too much, trying to prove himself a viable alternative to Thomas if the need arose. This time Bennett hopes to heed Perrilloux’s advice, and play more like he did in his command performances off the bench against the Sun Devils and Buffaloes.
“Coming into this, my third fall camp, that’s something I’ve noticed my whole career, is how much more comfortable and relaxed you become just by doing it,” Bennett said.
Picking up the pace
Despite the competition, quarterbacks are expected to be leaders on any team, and in that regard Bennett and Mariota seem to have had a successful summer.
Players say the team has built chemistry, and will hit the ground running when preseason camp starts. There have also been notably few offseason incidents to mar the Ducks’ record, unlike the past few summers.
Mariota said Oregon’s veterans have been the key to that, including one of the past offenders, senior linebacker Kiko Alonso, who has warned newcomers not to make the mistakes he did.
“A lot of these guys, it’s their last season, and they want to leave the right legacy,” Mariota said. “However they want things done, we’ll follow.”
The Ducks have met four times a week with UO strength and conditioning coach Jim Radcliffe for workouts, and usually get together an hour or so earlier to hold mock practices in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 formats. Radcliffe runs them through conditioning and agility drills, as the only coach allowed to meet with the team during the offseason.
At the Manning camp, Bennett was lauded for his conditioning, often finding himself “about 15 yards ahead of everyone else” in drills, according to the analyst Jeremiah of NFL.com. Bennett said that stemmed from trying to keep pace in Eugene with the likes of speedy UO star De’Anthony Thomas and redshirt freshman wideout B.J. Kelley, another track standout.
“Guys (at the Manning camp) were like, ‘Come on, Oregon, give us a break,’ ” Bennett joked. “I was like, man, when we’re running, I’m the one trying to keep up.”
New to the team for summer workouts are the bulk of Oregon’s incoming freshman class, joining the three who enrolled in time for spring drills. While Thomas drew raves as a standout during his initial summer on campus last year, no one individual from the new class seems to be standing out this year — or at least, neither Bennett or Mariota would admit to as much.
“On anyone’s first day, usually you’re trying to learn everything at once, and your head is spinning,” Mariota said. “But these guys came in prepared. A lot of these guys know what they’re doing, and that’s exciting for us. They want to be out here, and they want to learn. It’ll just make us that much better.”
Building toward August
For Mariota, what’s changed the most since last summer, he said, is the trust level he feels, both in his teammates and from them.
Bennett may have improved his arm strength, according to the NFL.com analysis, but he hasn’t focused on improving any one element of his game.
“I try to think about the whole picture at all times,” Bennett said. “When I’m training, I want to make sure I go hard in the weight room, hard in conditioning, stay on my film work, work on my feet, work on my routes. It’s the whole game at all times.
“If there’s one thing I have to work on, it’ll get taken care of if I’m doing everything right.”
In a little over six weeks, the Ducks will take the field for their season opener against Arkansas State, on Sept. 1. Only one of Bennett or Mariota will lead the Oregon offense out for its first drive, barring any trickery by the Ducks.
Bennett is a big-picture thinker — he said he spends time every once in a while working on taking snaps from under center, to be prepared in the event he ever gets to play in a pro-style system, meaning the NFL. But he said he tries to block out the potential for not being Oregon’s starter in 2012.
“If you get caught up in the negative, you’re leaving the door open for it to happen,” Bennett said.
Instead, both he and Mariota are focused on being at their best in August.
“It’s going good, and we’re ready,” Mariota said. “Fall camp’s right around the corner. The team’s excited, and we just want to get things going.”
“It’s going good, and we’re ready. Fall camp’s right around the corner. The team’s excited, and we just want to get things going.”
— Marcus Mariota, UO redshirt freshman quarterback
Yards passing, on 18-of-26 attempts with one TD, for redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota in the spring game.
Yards rushing for Mariota, with two TDs, in his team’s 41-14 victory over Bryan Bennett’s squad.
Number of career starts for Bennett, then a redshirt freshman, at Colorado last season.
Combined yards passing (156) and rushing (69) for Bennett in the lopsided victory over the Buffaloes.
Days until Oregon’s season opener against Arkansas State at Autzen Stadium.