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The senior and the freshman

Barner, Mariota excel in different ways for Ducks


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Kenjon Barner has rushed into potential Heisman Trophy talk this season as the Oregon Ducks' featured running back.EUGENE — Running stronger, using his vision, staying healthy, producing big numbers and leading the country's No. 2-ranked team — yeah, it's

been a pretty good senior year for Oregon's Kenjon Barner, who has worked his way into Heisman Trophy talk.

And, he relishes it, embraces it, a far cry from the extent to which his friend and former teammate, LaMichael James, downplayed the hype.

He didn't think the Heisman was a very prestigious award.

Barner?

"It's a blessing. I'm happy, extremely happy to be mentioned in that category," the Riverside, Calif., native says. "It's an absolute honor.

But I don't really worry about it."

In the same backfield, displaying athletic running ability, an accurate arm, grasp of the spread offense, maturity beyond his years, cool beyond his experience — yeah, it's been a really good first eight games for Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota, who has done nothing to diminish expectations of greatness. The Honolulu product has made some mistakes — decision-making — but he displays all the makings of an All-American in the future.

"Sky's the limit for this kid," Barner says, of his redshirt freshman quarterback. "He's amazing."

In Mariota and Barner, the Ducks possess a potent 1-2 punch that has been seen in these parts before. Just in recent years: Joey Harrington had Maurice Morris, Kellen Clemens relied on Terrance Whitehead, Dennis Dixon handed off to Jonathan Stewart and Jeremiah Masoli, and Darron Thomas had the luxury of counting on the churning legs and drive of

James — with Barner as a backup.

It's a pretty good recipe for success: a great quarterback and a great running back. And, Mariota and Barner, UO's most non-expendable players, will be front-and-center as the 8-0 Ducks play at USC, 4 p.m. Saturday, in their biggest challenge of the season. As they go, so go the Ducks — with a little De'Anthony Thomas added into the mix upon his

return to Los Angeles.

The Ducks are averaging 53.4 points, 330.6 yards rushing and 540.1 yards offense in large part because of Barner and Mariota.

The 5-11, 195-pound Barner leads the Pac-12 in rushing at 121.8 yards per game, with 15 total touchdowns. He's 26 yards short of reaching 1,000, and 43 yards shy of 5,000 career all-purpose — he'd the third Duck to reach the milestone, and he has 42 career touchdowns. He averaged 6.1 yards per carry entering the season, and gets 6.9 per touch this season. The highlights? A 201-yard rushing game against Fresno State, and an 80-yard TD run against Washington State.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - University of Oregon freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota is 'calm, cool and collected,' 'good for the team.'The 6-4, 210-pound Mariota ranks among the Pac-12 leaders in passing efficiency, averaging 185.4 yards per game, completing 68.6 percent of his passes, with 18 touchdowns and five interceptions. He's averaging 6.6 yards per carry. His highlights: Two four-touchdown passing days and an 86-yard TD run at Arizona State that displayed his terrific speed.

To have a dependable senior running back supporting a redshirt freshman quarterback is "huge," offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich says. "It's huge for a senior quarterback ...," he adds.

It's comforting having Barner to depend on, Mariota says. "Any good offense you've got to have a good running game," he says. "It opens up not only the passing game, but other guys, especially in this offense."

Barner's consistent yards per carry "puts us in good winnable downs, and that's huge for this offense, to keep it in rhythm."

Mariota has watched Barner rise to star level — and out of James' shadow — and says work ethic got him there.

"He's focused on making himself better and everybody else better," the QB says. "He's a great leader. He's done a great job of being himself out there and helping young guys understand, including myself, the

mentality we have here."

Personality-wise, Mariota describes Barner as very caring.

"He's been here. He's been around the block," Mariota says. "He understands some of the difficulties some of us young guys are going through right now, especially with academics and balancing all that.

He's a guy you can lean on. He's pretty outgoing. Always has a smile on his face. He really rallies the room. He's a good dude."

Barner has mutual admiration for the laid-back Hawaiian, and he recognized the kid's skills and upside on the day Mariota arrived in Eugene in summer 2011.

"It's what you see now. Everything about him," Barner says. "He is a special kid."

Barner has played behind three different starting quarterbacks — Masoli, Darron Thomas and Mariota — and a fourth, if you count oft-injured Nate Costa.

"Darron was a more vocal, energetic guy. Kind of made you feel like you had to panic a little bit, with how energetic he was," Barner says,

referring to Thomas' excitability in running UO's vaunted up-tempo offense. "(Mariota) and Masoli are kind of similar. Both are real calm, cool and collected. Never really stressed. Never a panic about them, never a sense of urgency. Always level, never up, never down, they're constant. That's good for the team."

Oregon coach Chip Kelly called Darron Thomas one of the best leaders he had ever been around. In Mariota, Kelly just loves the kid's demeanor.

Mariota passed his first test at Arizona State, and was looking forward to the challenge in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, as well as games at Cal, versus Stanford, in the Civil War at Oregon State, a potential Pac-12 title appearance and then a possible BCS berth.

Playing at USC? Mariota says he would have been ready on Day One.

Whereas Thomas won there in 2010, Masoli (2008) and Dixon (2006) had rough days.

"I could have handled it right out of the gate," Mariota says. "But we'll see how it is Saturday. I'm preparing myself mentally, and how this crowd can't affect me. If we take care of our business, we should be all right."

For Barner, it's a bit of a homecoming, being from Riverside, where he put up a prolific 10,772 all-purpose yards, including 8,178 rushing at Notre Dame High (3,124 yards and 46 TDs in his senior year).

He sat out the 2010 game at USC, recovering from a concussion suffered at Washington State.

Barner has dealt with his share of injuries, but he credits off-season preparation for making him more durable. In turn, he has run stronger with better vision, which he credits running backs Gary Campbell for emphasizing to him. He's also become harder to tackle — which was James' reputation.

"He's always been a tough guy," Helfrich says. "That's one thing our 'little' guys are underrated about. We take a lot of pride in that, whether it's Kenjon or De'Anthony or LaMichael. They play pretty strong, and they play big."

Says Barner: "You evolve over time. I'm being more physical, and seeing things differently."

Barner hasn't had to play four quarters in a game this season, and he says he gladly accepts the blowout wins, even though his numbers would

be higher if he had more time on the field.

"Like Coach Campbell says, 'You don't count your reps, you make your reps count,'" Barner says."I have to make every rep count."