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Why Mariota Leaving Is Good For the Ducks

Thursday, January 15, 2015


Marcus Mariota made the right decision for his future on Wednesday, but it’s also a choice that coincides happily with the best prospect for Oregon football success beyond the 2015 season.

First, let’s quickly dispense with why it made no sense for Mariota to spurn the NFL and return to Oregon for one more run at a national title. 

There’s the obvious comparison of the unsuccessful risk taken by quarterback Matt Barkley when he returned to USC in 2012 and went into a draft freefall after  a shoulder injury and a middling Trojans season. Mariota has nothing left to show pro scouts, who wouldn’t care if he somehow fashioned a storybook ending by leading Oregon to a national title in 2015.

And spare us the talk of how Mariota should enjoy the “purity” of college football for one more year before he enters the business that is the NFL. College football has been “shamateur-ism” since the days of Red Grange playing for the University of Illinois with only the adults making the real money off the game.

So how does losing the Heisman Trophy winner help Oregon in the long-term?

First, because Oregon is loaded on offense next year. 

Oregon fans would correctly salivate at the prospect of Mariota returning to a backfield with Royce Freeman and Thomas Tyner alternating at running back, as well as throwing to wide receivers Bralon Addison, Charles Nelson, Darren Carrington (after he serves his weed-related suspension), Dwayne Stanford (big drop in the championship game notwithstanding) and Byron Marshall if he does not enter the draft. And if tight end Pharoah Brown doesn’t return from his knee injury, then either Evan Baylis or Johnny Mundt are fine options.

But Mariota cannot stay at Oregon forever. There has to be a transition year at some point and what better time to break in his successor than by bringing him in with such a strong offensive cast in 2015, especially when a deep roster of linemen is returning with experience thanks to the mixed blessing of multiple injuries to starters forcing them into action this season.

Ducks fans should feel at least some level of comfort that while the dropoff from Mariota is huge, that either Morgan Mahalak or Travis Waller or Ty Griffin or even Jeff Lockie could have a solid safety net on offense that could end up becoming very run-oriented.

Second, the Ducks benefit in the long-term because like any college powerhouse, Oregon aims to line up recruits at each position so that there’s not a gaping hole for any season. 

And while Mariota is irreplaceable, another season of benchwarming for Oregon’s “next men up” to compete at quarterback could have driven some potential superstar to transfer elsewhere.

Sound silly? Perhaps. But what might Mariota have done if Darron Thomas had come back to play at Oregon in 2012 off two seasons as a starter with a 24-3 record. Any Ducks fan knows the buzz that Thomas made his surprising decision to declare for the NFL draft because Mariota reportedly would have beaten him out, but who’s to say if Mariota would have stuck around if Thomas had started.

Instead, Thomas left, Mariota stepped in and the Ducks have now won the Pac-12 four times in the last six seasons.

After all, you never know how the next man up will do until given a chance. Oregon painfully learned that Monday night with Cardale Jones, who had been expected to be Ohio State’s third-string quarterback heading into the 2014 season.

So Ducks fans, be happy for Mariota and treasure his memories forever. Then realize it’s time to move on. It’s for the best, both for him and for the Ducks dynasty in the conference to have the greatest chance of continuing beyond 2015.

A native Oregonian, Hank Stern had a 24-year career in journalism, working for more than a decade as a reporter with The Associated Press in Oregon, New Jersey and Washington, DC. He worked seven years for The Oregonian as a reporter in east Multnomah County, Washington County and Portland’s City Hall. In 2005, he became Willamette Week’s managing news editor and worked there until 2011.


Related Slideshow: The Twenty Biggest Moments of Mariota’s Career

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2004 - Leading his young team mates as a young QB

Marcus Mariota's football career began in modesty. Hawaii, like many other Pacific islands, doesn't have a very structured youth football system.

He was said to have been a natural leader. In his youth, Mariota always played quarterback.

 Wyoming safety Tim Kamana claimed to recall playing against Mariota in a sixth grade championship in Hawaii game.

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Summer 2010 - Being Named National Underclassman Combine "King of the Combine

In high school, Mariota overcame tremendous obstacles in getting a scholarship. As a high school football player in Hawaii, he was isolated from all but one of the 130+ Division 1 college football programs located at universities on the mainland. 

Another added obstacle - Mariota didn't earn a starting quarterback position for St. Louis High School in Honolulu - the alma matter of college quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli and Timmy Chang - until his senior season. Because of this, recruiters were relatively unaware of the future Heisman frontrunner until the final several months of his highschool career.

High school football fans in Hawaii were most impressed with how Mariota took the reigns of his new job.

Mariota deployed a precise focus and used his Gustavo Fring-like calmness to his advantage.

Consistent and deliberate, Mariota made his gridiron comrades look like all-stars during summer drills.

Mariota's high school has a very competitive football program. In his team's division, it's been common for talented quarterbacks to not start until late in their careers.

It's unikely he would have never gone unnoticed as a prospect if he was riding the bench at a more prestigious school, like Mater Dei High School or Long Beach Poly.

Since Mariota's breakout success, however, the dynamics of recruiting on the islands have changed, according to sources.

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Fall 2010 - Bouncing back after losing his first game

The first game of the 2010 season, Saint Louis High School was smashed by defending state champion Kuakua.

Mariota did not seem deterred by the loss, according to sources. His team rebounded from the trouncing and went on to win the rest of their games.

During his senior season, Mariota threw for 2,597 yards on 165 of 225 passing attempts (64.7 completion percentage), including 32 touchdowns against only five interceptions, while leading St. Louis to an 11-1 record and the state title while being named PrepStar Magazine All-West Region and Interscholastic League of Honolulu Offensive Player of the Year.

The nation took notice of the 17-year-old gunslinger.

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Fall 2010 - Saint Louis School Wins HHSAA Football Championship

Mariota's team won-out his senior season. The team that ultimately defeated Saint Louis had to forfeit its season due to player ineligibility issues. 

Mariota's and his teammates were crowned state champions.

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Spring 2011 - Signs LOI to Play at UofO, Earns Full-Ride Scholarship

Mariota signed his letter of intent to play football at the University of Oregon under an athletic scholarship in Spring 2011. 

Then-offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich played a significant role in Mariota's singing, according to reports.

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Spring 2011 - HHSAA State Track & Field Champion

Very few football players who go on to become all-Americans in college after winning high school championships for sprinting (although it does sometimes occur; see de Anthony Thomas and Brandon Cooks).

Winning first place as part of the 4x100 relay added to Mariota's legend, despite football fantatics on the west coast still believing (incorrectly) that the duck's QB depth chart had been set in stone since Bryan Bennett had been running Oregon's no-huddle offense.

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Spring, Summer 2012 - Beating Out Bryan Bennett to Become the Ducks' Starting QB

As a freshman during the 2011 season, Mariota sat out his redshirt year. While Mariota was taking his lumps on the scout team, most fans in Eugene were unaware of him, and instead were excited by Bryan Bennett leading the Ducks' option-run attack. 

Columnists and casual fans were both shocked when coaches announced in 2012 that Mariota had earned the starting position. 

In his first college start, at 19 years old, Mariota began a college career that resulted in him becoming the winningest quarterback in Oregon football history.

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Fall 2012 - Becoming a Household Name - "Eugene Famous"

Mariota's first collegiate start was broadcast regionally. During the route of Arkansas State, Mariota's father was interviewed live while he watched his from the stands in Autzen Stadium.

Mariota's father was wearing a t-shirt with an art pop design that showed his son's last name spelled out two letters at a time.

At the conclusion of the interview, Eugene sportscaster Jerry Allen, the voice of Ducks for over three decades, repeated the only quote that stuck with most viewers while they reread the shirt over and over again:

"...It's pronounce Mair-EE-oh-Taawhh..."

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Fall 2012 - Winning 43-21 on the Road @ Arizona State

Until mid October, Duck fans were getting restless.

The cause was unclear -  it could a priveledged boredom that came from a lack of competitive teams to challenge the new juggernaut, or perhaps it was a just the fan base's collective craving for attention and mentions on cable sports talk shows.

On Oct. 18, that all changed, when Mariota lit social media ablaze with his highlights. Columnists commented on the versatility and control he showcased while scoring a rushing, passing, and receiving touchdown. 

It looke so effortless when he was doing it - unlike when Joey Harrington collapsed into the pylon when he scored his receiving touchdown during his Heisman campaign.

It was clear to anyone watching Mariota that he was having a fun playing the game; Duck fans started having even more fun watching their team.

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Fall 2012 - Winning on the Road at 65-51 @ USC

The game at USC during Mariota's Redshirt Freshman year was, at the time, the most crucial win of the Helfrich era.

The memory of the Ducks losing their championship hopes after getting shot down in a shootout by a bowl-sanctioned Trojan team that had choked away away its preseason number one ranking, was still very fresh.

The opinion of most columnists going into the 2012 matchup was that if USC scored more than 35 points, the Ducks would lose the game. 

Viewers tuned in to see USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who was named as USC's starter as a true freshman by then-coach Pete Caroll.

As an 18-year-old, Caroll said Barkley was among the most talented quartbacks he had ever seen. The national sports media promptly embraced Barkley as a future NFL legend while he was still in high school.

Not only did Mariota show that he can take-over a game, he also showed his ability to craft long, sustained drives.

During the win, Mariota affectively dethroned Barkley as the prince of Pac-12, in front of the whole nation.

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Winter 2012 - Rebounding from an Overtime Home Loss vs. Stanford 

by winning the Civil War 48-28 @ Oregon State

Another defining moment during Mariota's freshman season was how he led his team following an embarassing overtime, home loss against an Andrew Luck-less Cardinal team.

The Ducks missed multiple Field Goal attempts in the loss the three-point-loss.

For the tens of thousands of spectators watching the upset live inside an eerilly silent Autzen Stadium, the loss just didn't make sense.

While Mariota reeled off big play after big play against hated Oregon State, it was clear that the Ducks had landed themselves a very special leader.

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Winter 2012 - Maintaining Focus in the Face of Success

Mariota was named 1st Team All Pac 12 and Pac 12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year.

People close to Mariota said the notariety didn't change his personality, as he remained humble.

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Jan. 3, 2013 - Winning the Fiesta Bowl vs. Kansas State 35-17

Being Named Player of the Game

The victory of K-State was a huge bowl victory for the Ducks. The game had  some of the feel of a national championship because both squads were considered to be the best two best teams for most of the year, before being upset late.

Mariota was named Player of the Game. He threw a touchdown in the first quarter.

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Fall 2013 - Perservering After His Team Loses Its Most Talented Player

The most impressive thing about Mariota's redshirt sophomore season was the fact that, against all odds, he consistently played at a high level and inreased the national buzz sorrounding him.

An ironic pairing that may always follow Mariota is his connection with former Hillboro High School football star Colt Lyerla, who played every offensive skill position on the field for the Ducks before being unexpectedly dismissed from the team in the middle of the 2013 season after police allegedly arrested him for cocaine possession in Eugene's Whiteaker Neighborhood.

The legend of Marcus Mariota and the tragic decline of Colt Lyerla came to fruition simultaneously. 

Mariota's performance on the field only became more prolific after losing Lyerla.

Lyerla was an NFL prospect. When he played at Hillsboro, he was considered by many coaches and scouts to have been the best high school football player to have ever played in the state.

NFL scouts were impressed with how Mariota responded to losing his outlet, which is commonplace on professional teams.

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Winter 2013 - Continuing to Roll

What Mariota continued to do on the field for the rest of the 2013 season was extremely special to watch, fans said. 

Mariota stacked up his stats, hoarded his wins and began setting a recod of 353 consecutive pass completions without an interception.

Whenever a QB throws fifty times without someone on the other team catching the ball, it's extremely impressive.

When pick-streaks grow into the hundreds, it shows something profound.

Sometimes when a receiver has a drop, the ball is tipped into the air, toward a defender. Not having any tipped picks shows that Mariota has an untuitive understanding of the game, for his teammates and the infinite number of variables between them.

His precision was on display in the Civil War, when Mariota hit Josh Huff for the game-winning touchdown with onyl 29 seconds left.

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Forgoes the 2014 NFL Draft

Mariota's football career was almost ruined in 2014.

Not because of anything he did, but because of what would have been waiting for him in the NFL had he left shool that year.

Mariota would have likely been selected in the first round by the Jacksonville Jaguars, in the place of the quarterback Blake Bortles.

(Wait who?)


And before you look it up, yes, Jacksonville, FL does still have a professional football team. 

Since the Jags are notorious for making terrible decisions, there's a chance that Mariota may have been selectd by the Cleveland Browns, where he could have experienced all the luxuries of being a young famous millionaire, while being forced to endure the City of Cleveland. 

The biggest bullet that Mariota dodged from forgoeing the draft, however, was avoiding a lifetime of Johnny Manziel comparisons.

"He would have hated that," Kostecka said.

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Fall 2014 - Touchdown Drive Early in 46-27 Win vs. Michigan State

"The biggest defining moment of the season during one of the first drives, when MSU had momentum - he pitched it to Royce Freeman for a first down," Kostecka recalled. "A sack there would have ended the drive. He could have ran the ball for the first down, but instead he trusted his teammates. That kind of instinct is what's going to allow him to make so much more plays in the NFL."

Trust and patience are what have set Mariota apart from other Heisman-winning quarterbacks during his era, like Winston and Manziel.

"(Winston and Manziel) are one man shows - and they can do anything," Kostecka said. "So can Mariota, but he makes his teammates look that good too, by trusting them and giving them a chance. That's the kind of player that I would want on my team."

The courage to stay in the pocket longer than most QBs with speed to burn gives Mariota more upside at the next level compared to his two counterparts.

"You would never know if these guys can play or not," Kostecka said.

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Winter 2014 - Winning the 2014 Pac-12 Championship vs. Arizona

Mariota's Ducks avenged their only loss of the season when they blew out Scoobie Wright's Arizona Wildcats Dec. 5.

At a certain points in the game, Oregon had more points on the board than Arizona had yards of offense.

Mariota set his official tally as the winningest QB in Duck Football history.

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Winter 2014 - Secures a Spot in the First Ever College Football Playoff

The 2014 Ducks secured a spot in the first ever college football playoffs. Oregon will compete with three other teams in a tournament that will begin Jan. 1.

The Ducks will face off against the Florida State Seminoles, led by 2013 Heisman winner Jameis Winston.

The winner of the Rose Bowl will go on to face the winner of Alabama vs. Ohio State, for the national title.

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Winter 2014 - Named Inaugeral Polynesian Football Player of the Year

Heisman Favorite

A point of reference can be seen for how deep of an impact Mariota's legacy will have on the sport, look no further than the first ever Polynesian Football Player of the Year Award being awarded to him Dec. 9.

It's a game changer for the sport, not because Mariota was the most successful Polynesian college football player this year, but because his body of work was so prolific that an award was created to honor other players who come though Pacific Island pipeline that he helped build for years to come.

Before Mariota, recruiting on Pacific was extremely rare, and was usually concentrated to one school.

Mariota changed the game, an gave hope to young footballers from Samoa to Hawaii and every island in between.


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