QB Marcus Mariota in the Fiesta Bowl
The 2011 recruiting class had plenty of talent across the board, but it might ultimately be remembered for producing the best group of quarterbacks the college football world has seen in quite some time.
Guys like Braxton Miller, Brett Hundley and Teddy Bridgewater have all lived up to their ESPN 150 hype, coming off fantastic 2012 campaigns and each belonging to many different preseason Heisman lists.
Then there's Johnny Manziel, who, despite finding himself as a 3-star in the eyes of ESPN recruiting analysts, went on to win the Heisman Trophy in his first season as a starting quarterback.
And, to appease the Stanford faithful, let's not forget about Kevin Hogan, who led his Cardinal to a Rose Bowl victory after taking over for Josh Nunes partway through the season.
All five of these quarterbacks will have a chance to make an impact at the professional level, but the very best of the bunch may be a name I've yet to mention: Marcus Mariota, who checked in at No. 123 in the 2011 quarterback rankings (safe to say they missed on that one ever so slightly).
I fully believe you could make a case for any one of these players having the brightest future, and I wouldn't knock anyone trying to convince me that Bridgewater, Manziel or any of the other three will have the best pro career.
Miller has insane athleticism that allows him make a play from anywhere on the field. Manziel went into Tuscaloosa and knocked off mighty Alabama with his backyard brand of quarterback play that dominated opposing defenses in 2012. Bridgewater has the maturity and confidence of a guy 10 years his senior. Hundley has the physical tools to do anything he wants on the field and, lastly, Kevin Hogan showed the kind of toughness it takes to be labeled a winner, particularly in Stanford's road victory over Oregon.
But this is the case for Marcus Mariota, whom I believe will go on to be the best NFL quarterback of his entire class.
Let's begin with what we can measure: At 6'4" and nearly 200 pounds, Mariota has both the height to see the field clearly and the athleticism to scramble away from sticky situations in the pocket.
But there are thousands of guys with both height and some measure of speed that have disappointed at the collegiate level. Heck, there are plenty of shorter players who have gone on to have amazing careers as well.
The difference here with Mariota is that it isn't just some measure of speed, it's breakaway speed that allows him to literally outrun defenders and take basic zone-read plays all the way to the house from anywhere on the field. His 86-yarder at Arizona State gave an athletic Sun Devils' defense a taste of how dangerous he can be on the ground.
Still, speed alone doesn't make a great pro quarterback, as former West Virginia star Pat White can attest to. Mariota combines his speed with decision making—which is what made the Ducks' offense so explosive last season.
In the running game, Oregon quarterbacks must quickly assess the situation after the ball is snapped and decide whether to hand it off. Sometimes, they must recognize an open man, pull the ball back and make a quick pass.
Whatever he decides to do, the quarterback has to make the decision quickly and complete the play with both speed and accuracy. In just over a year, Mariota learned enough of the offense to earn himself the starting gig, and that ability to conquer the playbook helped him become one of the best quarterbacks in college football.
But in an age where 40-times and vertical leaps are scrutinized perhaps a little too much, Mariota brings deadly accuracy to the table as well. In 12 games last season, Mariota completed less than 60 percent of his passes on just three occasions, and the first one came in a 49-0 victory over Arizona. Taking into account all 13 games, Mariota finished the season completing 68.5 percent of his passes.
Then there's the touchdown to interception ratio to consider. In the Ducks' first six games, Mariota threw 15 touchdowns with just five interceptions. But, in the last half of the season, the redshirt freshman threw 17 touchdowns and just one pick, giving him 32 touchdowns and just six picks for the season.
That kind of accuracy was on full display in back-to-back weeks against USC and Cal, where Mariota completed 47-of-57 throws for 681 yards and 10 touchdowns without a single pick.
Finally, it's the growth that Mariota has shown during his time at Oregon that leads me to believe he will continue to develop into an excellent quarterback when he reaches the NFL.
Consider that Mariota wasn't a starter during his junior year in high school. After an outstanding senior season, he went on to redshirt as a freshman with the Ducks. So, by the time Arkansas State rolled into Autzen Stadium last fall, Mariota had played just one season of football over the previous three.
He started hot, finished even hotter and showed the type of wizardry in the spring game that let everybody know a very special 2013 was forthcoming. Even his arm strength, which appeared to be just slightly above average at the beginning of last season, looked much improved.
It's difficult to knock any of the quarterbacks of the 2011 class, and, as I said before, you could probably make a decent case for any one of them having the best NFL future.
But given all that he has accomplished in such a short time and his ability to continue adding tools to his game, I believe Marcus Mariota will have the best professional career out of the bunch and go on to make Duck fans everywhere proud.