Sporting News this week examined the relationship between Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota and new head coach Mark Helfrich. The omnipresent background noise in Mariota’s outstanding freshman campaign is investigated further: the comparison to former Duck recruit and Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Mariota threw for 2,677 yards and 32 touchdowns, with only six interceptions, in 2012. He also ran for 752 yards and five scores. Terrific numbers? Sure. But on the Manziel scale, well, they could’ve been better.
Manziel is relevant here not only because he’s a former Oregon commit, but also because he’s now the guy all young college quarterbacks are measured against.
Mariota routinely made plays that defied expectations of what a first-year player should be able to do, all while leading UO to a 12-1 finish. Most seasons, his output would have set the college football world abuzz and earned him an invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club.
But while voters felt comfortable voting a freshman the Heisman Trophy winner for the first time in the award’s nearly eight decades of existence, the spotlight wasn’t big enough for two first-year players.
Even in Eugene, Mariota did not receive top billing. Senior running back Kenjon Barner was among the nation’s leading rushers in 2012 and was garnering considerable Heisman attention of his own after a five-touchdown performance at USC. Sophomore lightning bug De’Anthony Thomas always had spectators on the edge of their seats, knowing all it took for him to explode was one play.
Thomas is back in 2013, but Barner is gone. So is former head coach Chip Kelly, the man responsible for the ultimate say on Mariota vs. Manziel and facilitator of Oregon’s revolutionary offense.
Both leave considerable voids for the 2013 Ducks to fill. And with both exiting stage right, the full glare of the spotlight now shines on Mariota. What he accomplishes or fails to next season won’t be overshadowed; rather, it will lay the foundation for Oregon’s next era.
Kelly’s tenure was punctuated with standout running back play, from three years of LaMichael James to Barner in 2012. Quarterbacks Jeremiah Masoli and Darron Thomas were certainly effective, but in no way transcendent and certainly not pro material.
Some considered Kelly’s quarterbacks so interchangeable that it prompted columns like this from Deadspin.com, which asked what’s in it for them?
Misguided as the overall question may be, the sentiment that Kelly-era UO was wholly system-based resonated. Mariota began to defy these expectations as a freshman, and can go even further in the years to come.
Mariota and Manziel comparisons are some off-base, easy as they are to make. Manziel is a quarterback in a scatback’s body. His size may hinder him at the pro level, but in college it allows him to better utilize his jaw-dropping speed and freelance against defenses.
Mariota rushed for a little over half of Manziel’s output on the ground. The truth is, he didn’t need to. Mariota showed he was capable of the breathtaking scramble, like this rush against the nation’s No. 2 sacking defense, Arizona State:
But Mariota’s overall job description was much different than Manziel’s. Don’t expect that to change under Helfrich, either. The former offensive coordinator is likely to utilize Mariota’s 6-foot-5 frame in a hybrid blend of the traditional quarterback style and Oregon’s creative spread style.
And that frame is a quality that gives Mariota a higher bar than he reached in his already-impressive debut season. He’s built too different from Manziel for that comparison to be accurate, but he’s not a tank like predecessors Cam Newton and Tim Tebow.
Mariota is built more like 2012 Heisman Trophy finalist Collin Klein, but that comparison isn’t accurate, either — Mariota’s rushing style is far more finesse, and he’s a more natural passer.
Indeed, Marcus Mariota is in a different category altogether. Come next season, he could be in a class all by himself among his college football peers.