HOW GOOD IS OREGON AT IDENTIFYING OVERLOOKED quarterback prospects? Two years ago it got a commitment from Scout.com's 22nd-best QB prospect in the nation. The unheralded dual-threat prospect emerged as a superstar this fall. But enough about Johnny Manziel. He jumped to Texas A&M.
And if Manziel was a hidden gem, then the other dual-threat QB Oregon got that year, the one they held on to, was invisible. Rankings may not be an accurate indicator of a recruit's value (Scout had this one 34th among QBs), but the fact that the only other schools to offer him a scholarship were Memphis and Washington shows how little regard there was for Marcus Mariota.
Obviously, the lanky QB from a small high school in Hawaii is doing just fine now. He led Pac-12 quarterbacks in rushing yards (690), completion percentage (69.9) and passer rating (165.4), and became the first freshman QB since 1989 to be named first-team All-Pac-12. "He is as composed and has as full a package as any quarterback I've seen," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said after Mariota torched his Bears for 377 yards and six TDs. "He doesn't force balls. He's big. He's very fast. He makes good decisions."
Mariota battled veteran Bryan Bennett for the starting job, but coach Chip Kelly's decision to go with the new guy wasn't a huge risk. Mariota had introduced himself with an 82-yard TD run in the spring game—and after he was announced as the starter, he got a visible endorsement. "He will possibly be the best [QB] to ever play at Oregon!" former Oregon Heisman candidate and current 49ers running back LaMichael James tweeted. "He's the real deal."
James has looked prescient so far. Mariota's gaudy numbers are no surprise considering the system he's in, but Kelly has repeatedly praised him for "not making the same mistake twice." Mariota threw just six interceptions against his 30 TD passes.
"He can keep plays extended with his feet, but he is looking to throw," Kelly said after Mariota threw four TDs in a win over Washington. "He's not always looking to run.... That really adds a huge dimension to your offense when your quarterback can buy some time." Another dimension may have seemed like the last thing Oregon's ultradynamic offense needed. But in Mariota, that's what it got.