Saturday, September 1, 2012

Marcus Mariota gives coach Chip Kelly more run options and defenses another worry

Quarterbacks: Return of the X factor

By Bob Clark

The Register-Guard

Published: August 30, 2012 12:00AM, Midnight, Aug. 30

True or false: With Marcus Mariota as the starter for Oregon, it means more rushing plays for the quarterback.

Answer: It remains to be seen.

While Mariota has certainly shown flashes of his ability as a runner, and is apparently more able as a runner than last season’s starter Darron Thomas, the deciding factor in how much the Oregon quarterback carries the football won’t be the intent of the Ducks but a reaction to the opponent.

Coach Chip Kelly said the Ducks want to “see how people are going to defend us. If they’re going to let us do this, we’ll continue to do that.

“We never go into a game and have X amount of times (the quarterback) has to have (the football) in his hands. We go by how the defense defends us.”

In starting 12 of Oregon’s 13 games last season, Thomas finished with 56 rushing plays, though that bare statistic doesn’t show how many were designed runs, and how many were plays that might have started with the intent of throwing a pass but turned into an attempt to gain yardage by running.

By whatever means, the 56 total rushing plays was down from the 93 rushes that Thomas had the previous season, in 13 games, and less than half the average number of rushes by a UO quarterback in the first three seasons with Kelly’s offense in place at Oregon, two with him as coordinator and then his first year as the head coach.

But was it Thomas? Or, again, the opponents?

“People didn’t make Darron run the ball,” explained UO offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, adding that as long as defenses played the Ducks in a way that seemed to invite more runs by LaMichael James and his backups, “we’re good with that.”

Still, there is reason to think that this season, the quarterback on the run is likely to be a more viable part of the offense.

With Thomas last season, there was concern about his health as a knee injury took him out of two games and caused him to miss another. The Ducks begin this season with Mariota and backup Bryan Bennett both apparently healthy, and both have shown, if in brief instances, that they are definite threats as runners.

“Bryan and Marcus are different types of athletes than Darron, but it’s still a decision-making process and they’re both good decision makers,” Helfrich said. “All of that stuff will play itself out depending how people defend us.”

Well, they better defend the quarterbacks as potential runners, it would seem.

Kenjon Barner, Oregon’s starting running back, said both quarterbacks are “absolutely” good runners.

“No question about it,” Barner added. “They both have tremendous speed. … They’re two of the faster guys on the team.”

Remember the 82-yard sprint to the end zone by Mariota in the spring game? As a high school senior who led his team to the state title in Hawaii, Mariota averaged 7.6 yards per rush.

“It’s a part of my game,” Mariota said. “If the offense asks for me to carry the ball a little bit, I will.

“It just depends on the game plan that week and how it fits into the strategy of the game.”

In Bennett’s one start last season, he rushed six times for 69 yards, with a long gain of 43 yards. That came a week after Bennett, in a relief role, had rushed five times for 65 yards against Arizona State, with a long run of 36 yards.

That both have that ability as runners, and very similar skill sets overall, means the offensive plan can be the same with either in the game. And with the competition as reportedly as close as it was, it lessens any concern that an injury to the starter means a falloff to the reserve.

“They’re very similar guys,” Helfrich said.

Whether that all translates into more running by Oregon quarterbacks in games remains to be seen, but at least one Duck would welcome that option being utilized. And it’s the primary runner for the Ducks, Barner.

Why would he want someone else running the football?

Simply put, “you can no longer focus on the running back,” Barner said. “You have to worry about the quarterback running.”

“It’s still a decision-making process. ... All of that stuff will play itself out depending how people defend us.”

— Mark Helfrich, Oregon offensive coordinator

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