Breaking Down Oregon QB Marcus Mariota's Heisman Shot and NFL Prospects

Brandon Oliver@@BOatBRContributor ISeptember 27, 2013

Over the course of the season, Oregon's Marcus Mariota may not pile up the same numbers as Johnny Manziel or Brett Hundley due to Oregon's ability to move the ball on the ground at such a high level.

Despite this, the 6'4" sophomore is as good as anyone there is in college football.

When it comes to efficiency and production, Mariota accomplishes as much, if not more, than anyone when looking at his production vs. the number of snaps he takes. 

Mariota beat out former Ducks QB Bryan Bennett to fill the position Darron Thomas left vacant after the 2011 season. Since then, he's been 15-1 as a starter while compiling the following numbers.

One of the most impressive things about the redshirt sophomore is that he isn't fazed by the biggest of stages.

Even though last year's preseason No. 1, USC Trojans, had suffered losses to Stanford and then Arizona a week prior to hosting the Ducks, they were primed to salvage their season by beating Oregon. Mariota's response? He led the Ducks to 730 yards and 62 points—the most ever given up by the Trojans.

With a wild crowd watching and an angry Trojans squad, Mariota was ice cold from the get-go, leading the Ducks to scoring drives on their first five possessions. For the game, Mariota totaled 304 yards and four TD passes on 20-of-23 passing. He also rushed for 96 yards, including a 58-yard dash down the middle in the 2nd quarter.

What Makes Him So Good

When it comes to being the total package, Mariota matches up with the best. He has the big numbers, he doesn't turn the ball over, he has speed to burn and he leads a top five team with no ideas of falling out of the BCS National Championship picture.

Mariota might not appear to be as shifty in the pocket as Johnny Manziel, but a closer look shows he is every bit as capable of escaping the oncoming rush. He just makes it look easier.

There isn't another quarterback better suited to run Oregon's high-powered offense. When things break down, Mariota forgets any mistakes and moves forward like nothing ever happened. He hasn't had to worry too much about that in 2013 as he is yet to commit a turnover. He hasn't thrown an interception and as a team, the Ducks are yet to lose a fumble.

When things do go wrong—like they did in the first couple of drives against Tennessee—Mariota shakes it off and sticks to the game plan.

In that game against the Vols, the Ducks were unable to get anything going on their first two drives. On the opening drive, the Ducks went three-and-out as Mariota hit on just one of his three pass attempts. The second drive of the game wasn't much better as Mariota went 1-of-4 during a five-play drive that ended in a missed field goal. On the next drive, the Ducks had a touchdown get called back and settled for a field goal. 

Mariota was just 2-of-7 to start the game. After falling behind 7-0, he didn't panic and went 21-of-26 the rest of the way, finishing with 456 yards and four touchdowns. He also added 27 yards and a score on the ground. Mariota has scored through the air and on the ground in all three of the Ducks' games in 2013. In these games, the silky smooth sophomore is putting up monster numbers and leading the Ducks.

What He Needs to Improve On

One of the knocks against Mariota, as far pro prospects go, is no fault of his own. Oregon's system makes a lot of quarterbacks look better than they really are. The Ducks' system utilizes a short passing game that relies on timing and deception to supplement their high-powered rushing attack.

Mariota is pretty accurate in the Ducks system and throws a nice ball deep down the middle on post patterns. Where he has some issues is with his deep ball down the sidelines. He doesn't always get the necessary air under the ball to allow his receivers to run under it.

Part of the problem is the lack of repetition with the deep ball. The majority of the Ducks' big plays happen when Mariota distributes the ball to his play-makers on short passes and allows them to take advantage of a defense that has been spread thin by the Ducks' offense.

That being said, "Super Mario" is better than any of the quarterbacks the Ducks have had since going to the spread option. His height, pocket presence and awareness and calm demeanor give him an edge over former Oregon quarterbacks. He also has better speed than his predecessors and knows when to pull the ball back and take off on his own.

Most importantly, he doesn't make the kind of mistakes that cost his team a game. He has a tendency to start a little slow but usually settles down after a big play by an Oregon teammate, more so after he breaks off a long run.

What Are His Chances of Winning the Heisman Trophy

Mariota leads the latest Heisman Watch Poll by a sizable margin. The only issue with his chances seems to be whether or not he will be on the field enough to rack up the numbers needed to win the award. The Ducks don't have many close games but this year could be different as the Pac-12 is much improved. With Stanford a fixture in the top five and UCLA and Washington rising up the polls, there will be at least a couple of games that require Mariota to play the fourth quarter.

When he does play late into the inevitable close game this season, he will need to make it count.

All eyes will be on the Ducks when they travel to Palo Alto to take on Stanford in a nationally televised Thursday night game. After being shut down against the Cardinal last season, he'll need a late drive or big play to cap off a game in which he's already performed well, as this is the kind of that separates the winners of Heisman from competition.

A "Heisman moment" against the Cardinal, the Bruins or on the road against the Ducks' most bitter rival, Washington, could make all the difference for Mariota in his effort to become the Ducks' first Heisman Trophy winner.

What His Prospects Are for the NFL

His arm strength is sometimes questioned by scouts and other experts when examining his NFL prospects. This might be a little overblown, because when he needs to put some zip on the ball, he doesn't hesitate. And he shows the ability to find his receiver in a tight window in traffic or on the sideline.

When Mariota is off, it seems to be a result of him rushing throws, more so than him making bad decisions. There are times when he thinks he can fit the ball into a window that may or may not be there. But his mistakes are easily correctable.

Mariota is the prototype quarterback for the spread offense and with the NFL leaning more towards a wide-open passing game, Mariota's NFL prospects could improve even more if the trend continues. Remember that Mariota could play two more seasons in Eugene after this one if he so chooses. Mariota isn't the kind of kid that hates school and is driven by money, so him leaving for the NFL after this season isn't a given, as many seem to think it is.

His arm strength might be his biggest downfall but there are plenty of NFL signal callers past and present who didn't have a rocket launcher connected to their shoulder. Mariota's skills in the pocket, his footwork, running skills, size and improving accuracy give him a bright future at the next level.

According to, Mariota is the 2nd-ranked quarterback and 7th-ranked player overall in the class of 2016. ESPN Scouts, Inc. lists Mariota No. 23 overall, calling his production average, his height/weight and speed above average, his durability above average and his intangibles excellent. As far as QB traits, Scouts, Inc. calls his arm strength average and his accuracy below average, while his mental makeup and pocket mobility are both considered to be above average.

Draft expert Todd McShay of recently released his latest 1st-round projections and had Mariota in the mix for the first time. Putting him at No. 23, McShay mentioned Mariota's potential is perhaps his biggest asset. McShay said that watching Mariota improve has been exciting.

As I mentioned in the intro, it's still very early for Mariota. If he were to leave early after this season (he's only a redshirt sophomore) and a team were to take him high in the draft, they'd be gambling on his potential. But his potential is through the roof. He's a big-time running threat, for teams looking to run some zone-read, and you're starting to see a little more consistency with his accuracy and decision-making throwing the football. He can still be erratic, but the improvement he's making is very exciting to see.

It would probably be in Marcus Mariota's best interest to come back to school in 2014 and remain at the helm of the Ducks high-profile attack. Another year in the limelight honing his skills and maturing will do wonders for the quiet leader of the nation's best offense.

McShay makes a great point when he talks about Mariota's upside. The kid has proven himself time and time again and he'll have plenty of opportunities to shine on the biggest of stages as long as he remains with the Ducks.

He has a huge battle ahead against Brett Hundley and UCLA in a game that could have huge implications for the Heisman Trophy, national title race and NFL draft.


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