‘I need to show I can get better’
Ducks QB Mariota knows all eyes will be on him for leadership
EUGENE, Ore. -- Marcus Mariota simply isn't the type to bark orders, perhaps because of his mellow Hawaiian upbringing. But the sophomore quarterback for Oregon is vowing to be more vocal in his second season guiding the Ducks.
Last year at this time, Mariota was a redshirt freshman and an unknown commodity, having played only on the practice squad. He emerged during the spring game and eventually supplanted supposed starter Bryan Bennett in fall camp.
Throughout his first season, he mostly left the leadership to the seniors. He said it's his turn now.
"It's a little different. I think last year my mentality was to show what I could do," he said. "This season I need to show I can get better."
Oregon's preparation for the coming season started earlier this month with spring practice. The annual spring game will be held Saturday at Autzen Stadium.
Oregon finished last season 12-1 with a 35-17 victory against No. 7 Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl. It was the Ducks' fourth consecutive trip to a BCS bowl game and second straight victory. Oregon ended up ranked No. 2 in the season's final AP Top 25.
Mariota set the team's single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, 5 rushing, 1 receiving), surpassing the previous mark of 36 held by Darron Thomas (2011) and Akili Smith (1998).
The first freshman named to the Pac-12's all-conference first team in 23 years, Mariota passed for 2,739 yards while completing a school-record 68.5 percent of his passes. He had 3,429 yards of total offense, second only to Smith's 3,947 in 1998.
Following the season, head coach Chip Kelly -- the no-nonsense architect of the Ducks' speedy spread offense -- left Oregon to become head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. The school promoted offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich.
Mariota said not much has changed under the amiable Helfrich, except -- jokingly -- there's "less yelling." Kelly set the offensive foundation that the Ducks will continue to follow this season, with Mariota and running back De'Anthony Thomas setting the pace.
Mariota is the product of St. Louis High School in Honolulu. He threw for 32 touchdowns and only five interceptions in leading the Crusaders to an 11-1 record and the state title as a senior. He was widely considered one of the state's best quarterback prospects since Tommy Chang.
He was on the practice squad in 2011 when the Ducks finished the season with a Rose Bowl victory against Wisconsin and Darron Thomas was at quarterback. Thomas declared early for the NFL draft and many assumed the starter's job would be passed on to Bennett, his backup.
But Mariota piqued the interest of fans during Oregon's annual spring game when he threw for 202 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for two additional scores. Because Kelly closed practices, it was uncertain until late last fall who would be Oregon's new starter.
Mariota won. Bennett transferred.
While Mariota wasn't the loudest player on the team, that didn't mean he wasn't assertive. Last season when there was some trash talking with the Northwest rival Huskies, he jumped right into the fray.
"I'm never the kind of guy that, if you disrespect me or disrespect my teammates, I'm not going to just let that go," he said at the time. "There's situations when you can keep your head, there's situations where you need to say something."
This season, Mariota accepts that most everyone will be looking toward him for leadership.
"Especially with a lot of the veteran guys last season -- like Kenjon Barner and Michael Clay -- those guys left. Those were vocal guys," Mariota said. "I'm more of a low-key guy, so that's something I've got to work on, especially at my position. They always ask the quarterback to be a little more vocal."