After a tantalizing spring game at Autzen Stadium, red-shirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota has yet to learn if he will start for the Oregon Ducks.
Meanwhile, Marcus Mariota vs. Bryan Bennett has become the biggest question of the season for the 2012 Oregon Ducks football team. On September 2, Oregon fans will not only be aware which quarterback Chip Kelly gave the starting job to, but fans will also know exactly how that quarterback looked against Arkansas State (including pocket poise, scrambling ability, confidence and accuracy) in the Autzen Stadium home opener.
Yet while that game against Arkansas State does not feel terribly far away, fans all over the world still have no idea which direction head coach Chip Kelly appears to be leaning.
"There aren't many differences from a physical standpoint," said Kelly. "It's just now who picks it up, who can move the group the best, is going to be what the determination is based on when we get back to camp next fall."
Of course, Oregon fans have already seen how 20-year-old Bryan Bennett performs on the field. He played in eight games for Oregon last season, threw six TD’s and no interceptions, had strong accuracy (25-for-46), ran for 8.7 yards per carry with a 49-yard rush against Colorado and even completed a pass on an option play to Darron Thomas in the Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin.
Even though Bennett is the returning candidate who received playing time with Darron Thomas under Chip Kelly last season, it was 19-year-old Marcus Mariota who seems to have won over the Oregon Ducks fans with his stellar spring play.
While some still may prefer Bennett, Oregon fans have yet to learn the legitimacy of Marcus Mariota.
RECAP: With Darron Thomas leaving early, red-shirt freshman Marcus Mariota and red-shirt sophomore Bryan Bennett compete for the starting job at the University of Oregon.
Dan Fouts. Kellen Clemens. Dennis Dixon. Joey Harrington. These are some of the most prestigious names to play quarterback for the Oregon Ducks.
In the absence of Darron Thomas, it's time for a new name to arise and earn the honor of the starting role at Oregon. While Oregon Ducks wide receiver Rashaan Vaugn has made it clear that neither has an advantage even "by an inch," the two head into the final weeks before the regular season without much of an indication as to which quarterback will reign in the season as the starting quarterback in Eugene.
While fans may already know about Bryan Bennett from his play last season, analyzing the pros and cons of Mariota's impending career are a necessary next step for Oregon fans everywhere.
PROS: Marcus Mariota is sure to impress with his cool composure and natural talent as he enters his red-shirt freshman season.
In the absence of Darron Thomas and LaMichael James, Mariota provides an immediate rejuvenation of energy and character.
For a new generation of the Oregon Ducks, fans may remember the post-LaMichael James Era as one defined by Marcus Mariota and De’Anthony Thomas on offense. While the talent is undeniable, Mariota brings admirable leadership capabilities to a team in search for a more solidified character and identity in the upcoming year.
“Last year I came in just trying to figure out where I fit in, and if this was the right decision in my life,” said Mariota. “Now I have to step up and be a leader.”
After a fantastic write-up in the Oregon Daily Emerald that chronicled his interest in leading by example rather than word, his play in the spring game certainly solidified that exact sentiment.
With 202 yards in the air (18-of-26 and 1 TD) and 99 on the ground (2 TDs including an 82-yard run on a fake), Mariota beat Bennett’s squad by a total of 41-14.
This was just a microcosm of what his talent had produced in his senior year in Honolulu, Hawaii. For his football team, he accumulated 2,597 yards in the air (32 TD’s and only five interceptions) and 455 yards on the ground (seven TD’s) before graduating and heading up to Oregon. He attended Saint Louis High School, the same high school as former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, and the most represented high school in the nation on the Oregon Ducks roster.
It was easy for Mariota to join a recruiting class that had already featured names like De’Anthony Thomas and Colt Lyerla. And from the time Chip Kelly first laid eyes on Mariota, he had become infatuated.
“He’s the perfect fit for what we do offensively,” said Kelly on signing day of Mariota, almost an HGI clone of what the Oregon Ducks coach looks for in a quarterback talent level.
Even Bryan Bennett is impressed with Mariota.
"He throws a good ball, he's fast and he's a smart quarterback, just like all the quarterbacks on our team," said Bennett. "Marcus is a good all-around player. It's going to be fun."
At the end of the day, Mariota is a very well-liked individual on the team with an identity central to that of the Eugene atmosphere. He is expected to shine if the opportunity were given to him.
“They’re definitely two different people,” said wide receiver Daryle Hawkins. “Marcus definitely has that laid-back culture that’s identified with being Hawaiian. Bryan is Bryan.”
Mariota has incredible speed and pocket presence, which more than enough compensates for the more laser-like arm of Bryan Bennett.
Perhaps another perk is that (as Addicted To Quack points out) Mariota seems much more open to a two-quarterback system much like the one that LSU used to win the BCS National Championship in 2007 than Bryan Bennett is.
Mariota, a diligent trainer, is marvelously ready for whatever role he is put into. His obvious wish is to earn the starting role, and his demeanor heading into the season exactly fits that mold.
Regardless of experience, Mariota may be able to replicate the 2010 decision of Chip Kelly, who gave the starting job to sophomore Darron Thomas rather than senior Nate Costa. Thomas went on to go 24-3 as a starter with two Pac-12 championships and the first Rose Bowl victory for Oregon since 1917.
“You see the older guys working hard, and it pushes you to do better,” said Mariota. “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.”
CONS: Marcus Mariota may be great, but is he ready for the ultimate test in the upcoming season without ever taking a snap at the college level?
Mariota is an incredible athlete with composure and confidence well beyond his youth.
Yet there’s still something missing when it comes to entrusting him with the starting role this season.
Earlier this offseason, one of my favorite Oregon writers, Dale Newton, made a very interesting observation on his blog entry detailing the upcoming quarterback controversy brewing in Eugene.
“Somewhere during the year, the Ducks might miss [Darron Thomas’s] toughness, leadership and experience,” writes Newton. “It'd be nice to enter the L.A. Coliseum with a quarterback who'd won there before, or faced that big of a game, national TV, ESPN, top five matchup, capacity crowd. It's a different kind of pressure, and there's no way to be sure how a young quarterback will handle it until he faces it for the first time.”
Chip Kelly expressed a similar thought.
"I have a lot of faith in both those guys' abilities,'' Kelly told The Oregonian. "Sam Rutigliano, the longtime NFL coach of the Cleveland Browns use to say, `It's like a teabag, you don't know what you've got until you put it in hot water.' I anticipate them being very successful, but we'll see. That's obviously a big question for all of us.''
We don’t know how Bryan Bennett will be in hot water either. After all, it wasn’t Bennett executing the final plays of the game. With Bennett, however, he would be able to feel as if he’d been there before.
Mariota may get there. But he’s young and we simply don’t know. At this point in his career, Bennett has simply had more experience and exposure. After a disappointing performance in the spring game, Bennett impressed many at the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana in July.
“Bennett has a lot of tools to work with and I’m anxious to see how the position battle shakes out in Eugene,” said analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who was also impressed with how ahead of everyone else Bennett was in running drills. Bennett has reportedly been very sharp through out training.
In his third training camp as an Oregon Duck, the red-shirt sophomore hopes to up his confidence level to well past where it was when he faced off against Marcus Mariota in the spring game. He clearly has the talent, and his experience will assuredly do just that so long as he can keep his head on straight.
PREDICTION: Bryan Bennett takes the first snap of the season, but Mariota sees many touches and go on to stardom in Oregon.
At the end of the day, I think Bryan Bennett gets the job.
Mariota is the younger and less seasoned of the two, and the spring game was the perfect opportunity for Bennett to realize that there is indeed a player on his tail even after the departure of Darron Thomas. These summer workouts were a way to ignite a fire for Bennett, and the person who has explained that most eloquently in my opinion was (of all people) Marcus Mariota himself.
“We've talked and it's not a controversy for us," said Mariota. "It's more of a way for each of us to get better. People might bring up what they want, but we're just taking it day by day. We're both good players. No matter what happens we know that in the end, the guy who is playing, the other guy will root for him."
It’s a brilliant strategy for the Oregon Ducks. No matter what they decide, by not announcing a quarterback, it simply motivates both individuals to play at their best possible potential.
I wouldn’t worry much if I were Mariota. As they each get better, it is in my most genuine belief that they will both receive extreme amounts of playing time in this upcoming season, perhaps occasionally even at the same time.
"It's a guideline, not a rule," said Kelly of a two-quarterback system. "I've just never been anywhere where we've had two kids that are equal so that two both deserve it. Someone has emerged that has become that guy."
Because Oregon has a closed practice, we still have no idea who has become “that guy” in Eugene this offseason. But the excess talent is certainly not a bad thing for the Oregon Ducks team, who will find a way to maximize all potential needed for success.
"We're trying to get the best product for Oregon football," said Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. "It's not Bryan vs. Marcus. It's not Romney-Obama. It's, let's have the best product on the field, and they did a good job of helping each other today."
Mariota has a world of potential as a football player and could go down as one of the most exceptional Oregon Ducks to ever play quarterback for the team by the time his tenure with the team is completed.