In our first look at Marcus Mariota against live competition, we got to see a kid capable in the passing game who is going to continue to improve as he pushes the Oregon Ducks toward a Pac-12 North title.
We all knew Mariota could run—it was the Ducks' focus on getting the passing game up and running early that answered some questions with respect to what Mariota can be as a quarterback.
Watching the game, it was clear that Chip Kelly wants to get Mariota comfortable passing against live competition. The Ducks threw the ball 39 times, and Mariota had 22 of those attempts. In throwing for three touchdowns, the redshirt freshman showed off what many in the Oregon camp already knew—he was not a runner trying to throw. Mariota is a quarterback.
Physically, the kid is imposing. He's tall, he's put together solidly and he's got that big arm that you want out of passer. He's strong enough to throw the ball off of his back foot and still be accurate, but he also has the mechanics, footwork and technique to get set and throw.
Mariota puts a soft touch on the ball, just an easy, pretty football to catch, and his 18-of-22 completion rate exhibits that fact. He fits the ball into tight windows, keeps his eyes downfield when he's on the move and is even capable of getting his shoulders around while moving left to throw an accurate ball out of his right hand.
Yes, it was just Arkansas State, and things will get tougher. Expect more coverage options to be thrown at the young quarterback and for teams to try various means of getting pressure on the first-time starter.
It was wise of Kelly to get Mariota acclimated to throwing the ball early. Instead of using his athleticism to beat the inferior Red Wolves, Mariota stayed in the pocket, took advantage of his roll-outs and found the open receiver. The ace in the hole is his athleticism. It will be available when it is required to beat opponents as the Ducks get into the conference schedule.
Going forward, fans shouldn't expect the Ducks to slow down. Darron Thomas, who guided the Ducks to a BCS Championship game in 2010, had a two-touchdown, 220-yard passing debut as a starter. Mariota, who threw for 20 fewer yards than Thomas, put up one more touchdown, eliminated the interception and completed more passes on fewer attempts.
With Stanford still finding itself and Washington looking like a work in progress, the Ducks are clearly in the catbird seat in the Pac-12 North. Marcus Mariota has the skills to succeed—it will be interesting to see how Kelly loosens the reins and allows the redshirt freshman to run as the season goes on.