Oregon Ducks quarterbacks Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota are being scrutinized as if they were contestants on American Idol. Their talent and potential excite Duck fans who hope for a return trip to the BCS National Championship.
How much will this depend on Bennett or Mariota? The Ducks are already loaded at running back and have collected talented wide receivers. Do they just need a quarterback to manage the game and make plays as needed?
Then again, maybe the Ducks will feature a rockstar quarterback who sweeps through college football with his tour schedule screen-printed on the back of Nike T-shirts. Maybe the next Dennis Dixon is coming.
Dennis Dixon and the Oregon Ducks crashed Michigan’s Big House in September, 2007. Oregon's 39-7 win was a smashing success, but it was the style and flamboyance of Chip Kelly’s new spread offense that dazzled a national audience. The Ducks even planted the famed Statue of Liberty play near the Michigan end zone. It was the supplanting of traditional college football by the kind of noise and rage not seen since the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind.
Dixon’s personal stock rose as the front-runner for the 2007 Heisman Trophy, and he flashed his spectacular skills as a dual-threat quarterback. Under Kelly, Dixon morphed into an efficient passer, posting 20 touchdowns with only four interceptions in his 10 games. He added nine rushing touchdowns and averaged 58 yards per game.
Most of all, Dixon’s flair and showmanship captured Duck fans. He starred in several spectacular running plays, and he was a magician with the ball in setting up the schemes to Oregon’s spread offense. At 6'3” and less than 200 pounds, he was slender but speedy. His athleticism allowed him to improvise on broken plays and embarrass opposing defenses.
Tragically for the Ducks, their title run tour ended with Dixon’s left knee ACL tear. Dixon, like Steve Prefontaine, left a mythical sense of “what could have been.”
Even with Oregon’s rising success, Dixon’s shadow has hovered over subsequent quarterbacks.
Jeremiah Masoli was a fearless runner, but an erratic passer.
Darron Thomas amassed team records in passing production and efficiency but was a more limited runner. Many Duck fans questioned his throwing mechanics and occasional misfires above and behind his wide receivers.
Nate Costa seemed to have the right blend of speed and quarterback acumen, but couldn't stay healthy.
The whispers are growing louder. Even Bryan Bennett can’t escape the Dixon comparisons: As early as 2009, Scout.com reported, “Bennett is as smooth running the ball as Dennis Dixon.” Bennett did face stiff competition at Crespi High in California and did help the Ducks to three victories in 2011, so there is at least a measure of security for Duck fans, if not outright confidence.
Marcus Mariota possesses the same physical stature as Dixon. He is a throw-first quarterback who can also demoralize a defense by running. Dale Newton’s comprehensive profile of Mariota included a Dennis Dixon comparison. Furthermore, Mariota’s potential has reached almost mythical status with a 10-minute YouTube package. It’s impressive, but also performed in Hawaii against weaker competition than in places like California and Texas. Can Mariota perform close to this level in the Pac-12?
Sooner or later, Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie will also face the inevitable Dixon comparisons, but maybe this is missing the point. The 2012 Ducks have amassed talented players and depth at every position. They will rely on Kenjon Barner, De’Anthony Thomas, Michael Clay and many other proven winners.
If one of the Duck quarterbacks is able to provide rockstar showmanship but the team ends up 7-5 and in the Las Vegas Bowl, nobody will care if he plays like Dennis Dixon.
Duck fans will then wish he were a winner—like Darron Thomas.