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IT'S PERHAPS AN INDICATION OF WHAT OREGON HAS ACCOMPLISHED during Chip Kelly's tenure that the biggest question of the 2012 season (who will be the breakout quarterback?) hasn't been especially controversial. Redshirt sophomore Bryan Bennett played well in relief of Darron Thomas in seven games last season, and in his only start, a 45--2 rout of Colorado, Bennett had 225 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota thrilled in this year's spring game with an 82-yard touchdown run that had fans buzzing.
The competition will go on for a while, and if the Ducks seem confident that either player could lead them, it is because both have shown talent and potential ("both," Kelly says, "are what we're looking for in a quarterback") and also because of Kelly's track record with the position. Over his five seasons in Eugene (two as offensive coordinator, three as head coach), the offense has morphed to fit the varied skills of several different quarterbacks. Some passed. Some ran. All won.
The good news for Bennett and Mariota is the talent that will surround them, since Oregon has much of its nucleus from 2011 intact. The defense, the strength of which is a veteran linebacking corps, could be the most effective that the Ducks have fielded in recent years. Though the exciting Thomas and LaMichael James are gone, the offense features an experienced line anchored by redshirt sophomore center Hroniss Grasu as well as playmakers in running backs Kenjon Barner and De'Anthony Thomas (who will also continue to play receiver).
If Oregon is to win its fourth straight conference title, however, the quarterback must meet a high standard. Both Bennett and Mariota are dangerous running threats—easily more dangerous than Thomas and faster than Jeremiah Masoli before him. "You have to go back to 2007," says Kelly, referring to Dennis Dixon, "to find that flat-out speed they have."
The comparison has Ducks fans salivating, especially as both QBs fit Kelly's preference for the spread option: "quarterbacks who have the ability to run, not runners who can throw." If the Ducks' recent trend at the position continues—plug-and-play—Oregon's status atop the Pac-12 should too.
COACH Chip Kelly (4th year) 34--6 (25--2 in Pac-12)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR Mark Helfrich
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Nick Aliotti