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Mariota's cool demeanor key to Ducks' shaka

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota sprints through the USC defense.EUGENE — It started as the most intriguing subplot of the 2012 Oregon Ducks.

Who would be the starting quarterback? Who was better?

Eleven games later, the questions seem kind of ridiculous. Redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota has reached star status, guiding the Ducks into the Civil War with hype and hoopla following him, despite the Ducks’ inexplicable offensive setback and loss against Stanford.

It’s hard not to think that Mariota had been the pick of UO coach Chip Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich all along, although they claim the competition between Mariota and Bryan Bennett, essentially starting in the summer of 2011, had always been close, that Mariota proved himself in training camp to earn the job.

Wow, just think how Bennett must feel these days as backup to arguably the best young quarterback in the country.

A humble and laid-back from Hawaii, likable and team-oriented, Mariota tried to comfort Bennett after coaches tabbed him the starter. Disenchanted and facing three years as Mariota’s backup, Bennett considered transferring immediately.

“I told him, ‘We would really love to have you here, you can make a difference, you’re just one play away from playing,’ ” Mariota says. “I’m glad he stayed. He’s the kind of guy, he’s a difference-maker as well. He’s a big and effective weapon. When he’s asked to do (something), he does a good job at it.”

But, it hasn’t been easy. The Oregon quarterbacks are a close-knit bunch, Mariota says, but Bennett couldn’t help but be frustrated. He had played in 2011, as Darron Thomas’ injury replacement, and done well. But Mariota had also impressed coaches in practice, and then shined in the UO spring game. It was a fair fight, they both claimed, but, still ... frustration for the sophomore kid from Encino, Calif.

“I’m past that point, really. When you work hard for something and want something, and don’t get it, it’s hard,” says Bennett, who has made an impact in various ways in his reserve role. “That goes along with life. You get a

setback, but it’s how you come back from it. It’s an opportunity to get your mind right, and understand that things just a ren’t going to be given to you. You never stop and keep working hard. I still have a long time to play.

“What’s going on this season isn’t going to affect my dreams, I’m not going to give up on something just because I’m not a starter for one year. It’s something I’ll have to earn. Right now, my goal is to help my team the best way I can, whether they need me to stand on the sideline or signal in signs, or go out and make a play.”

And, then, transfer?

“I’m not worried about that right now,” he says. “I’m worried about this season, finishing out strong. I’m got a new mindset on things. I’m going to see where my best opportunities are. It could be here.”

One reality has been proven: Bennett, as well as redshirts Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie, have quite a challenge ahead of them to unseat Mariota as Oregon’s starting quarterback

Mariota has been phenomenal, already shattering the Pac-12 record for touchdown passes (29) for a freshman quarterback, and leading the Pac-12 in pass efficiency with 2,371 yards passing, 69.8 percent completion rate and only six interception. He’s a dangerous dual-threat QB (605 yards rushing, 5 TDs), along the lines of Dennis Dixon — an accurate passer, a swift runner and an intelligent kid who doesn’t make the same mistake twice. He and the Ducks stumbled against Stanford with only 14 points and 405 yards offense, but he had led Oregon to the top of the offensive charts in the Pac-12 and the country with offensive showcases in the 10 previous games.

“He’s a cool character,” receiver Eric Dungy says. “I don’t think he feels pressure. In big games, he doesn’t get nervous or freaked out. So cool. He gives the whole team a sense of calmness. You see his demeanor, you’re not fazed, not panicking.”

Adds receiver Keanon Lowe: “He’s just a quarterback who’s always going to keep his poise. He always has confidence in us.”

Mariota has heard all the notoriety, and not been bothered by it.

“I just try to take it one game at a time,” he says.

Mariota’s journey as a quarterback started a long time ago. He played some receiver in Pop Warner, and then moved to quarterback. A coach once encouraged him to run with the ball to gain 15 yards in open field, rather than throw it. A dual-threat quarterback was born.

“Afatasi,” meaning half and half, they call him in Hawaii — the son of a father who’s full Samoan and mother who’s full Caucasian from Alaska. He attended famed St. Louis High in Honolulu, where the likes of standout quarterbacks Jason Gesser, Timmy Chang and former Duck Jeremiah Masoli had played.

“I tried to mirror what they did,” he says. “They were fun to watch.”

He also watched television and marveled at Michael Vick.

It’s hard to believe that Mariota didn’t start until his senior prep year. He had been Jeremy Higgins’ backup at St. Louis for two years. Higgins has been fighting to start at Hawaii, a school that chose not to recruit Mariota.

By then, however, the Ducks had already offered Mariota a scholarship, which he later accepted — surprisingly, only Washington and Memphis saw his potential and offered him scholarships. Oregon coaches had watched him play in Oregon camp — ironically, the same camp attended by Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, another ballyhooed redshirt freshman quarterback. Manziel committed to the Ducks, then de-committed.

“Very surprising, very surreal,” says Mariota, of Oregon’s early interest in him. “I talked with Coach Kelly and they had all the confidence in me. It made me feel comfortable.”

Mariota didn’t disappoint once he got the chance to start at St. Louis High. He passed for 2,596 yards and 32 TDs in leading the Crusaders to the state championship in 2010.

At Oregon, Mariota has taken advantage of his opportunities, clearly. He never let himself think he would beat out Bennett to start.

“I couldn’t let my mind do that. If I did, that’s the moment Bryan would have come back,” he says. “For myself and him, it was every day a battle, back and forth, we really didn’t know (who would start) until they talked with us at the end (of training camp).”

The 6-4, 200-pound Mariota made an immediate impact for the Ducks, engineering seven touchdowns in seven drives in the opener against Arkansas State. He underwent some growing pains, mostly with decision-making, but continued to excel, throwing for four TDs against Tennessee Tech and Washington. He ripped off an 86-yard TD run against Arizona State. Then came the showdown at USC. He complemented Kenjon Barner’s school-record 321 yards rushing by going 20 of 23 for 304 yards and four scores.

The next week, as Cal focused on stopping Barner and UO’s rushing attack, Mariota played even better, going 27 of 34 for 377 yards and six TDs, the touchdown mark tying the school record held by Thomas, Joey Harrington and Danny O’Neil.

“It’s an honor to be part of that,” he says. “It’s fun to throw the ball and get everyone involved and get guys touchdowns. Will Murphy had the first touchdown of his career. You have guys bust their tails for a long time — to see them have success on the field is really fun.”

He had a 77-yard run and TD pass against Stanford, but he clearly wants to get the Ducks back on track against Oregon State.

The game has slowed down for Mariota, who has executed UO’s offense flawlessly at times. Asked whether Kelly and UO’s system contributed largely to his success, Mariota says:

“They teach us game plans and what to do. It’s kind of applying that. They really get a lot of credit, but it’s also the guys around me. They’re the ones who catch the ball, block up front and run hard. This is a whole team thing.”

Says Kelly: “He’s had the opportunity to go out there and experience a lot of different things. He’s a real sharp kid, a real quick learner. The more experience he gets, the better he’s going to be. When you’re trying to tell him to do something (like run), you screw him up. He’s made some pretty good decisions.”

The 6-3, 200-pound Bennett stumbled early this season, but he has contributed with six rushing touchdowns, and been part of Oregon’s most unique plays. He and Colt Lyerla jointly held the ball on a short TD run against Arizona (Lyerla got the TD credit) and then he tossed (heaved?) a 2-yard TD pass to Mariota on another UO red-zone play. Both received ESPN highlights.

Bennett has been happy getting some playing time, whether it be in routs, as a red-zone weapon or replacing a banged-up Mariota briefly against USC. (Mariota hurt his left shoulder twice, against USC and Cal).

Bennett’s athleticism warrants him being on the field; he has taken snaps in the secondary, and he wouldn’t rule out wanting to play receiver or running back.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunities I’ve been given,” Bennett says. “I’m happy to see Marcus succeed, and also get a little chance to make some plays myself.”

He has observed UO’s starting quarterback, and tried to learn from him.

“Marcus has done a great job since he got here, taking things in and understanding the offense,” Bennett says. “He plays with poise, within himself, he’s very efficient in the passing game and running game and making good decisions.”

Adds Mariota: “I feel Bryan does a good job making sure everyone understands what they’re doing out there. He’s a really good vocal leader. He’s an aggressive guy, likes to take chances. He’s a hell of a football player. He’s good at what he does.”

Bennett says the two quarterbacks have a strong relationship — “competition never put salty feelings between us,” he says. “We understand each other’s roles.”

The relationship extends to prospects Rodrigues and Lockie, who, no matter what happens with Bennett, would be trying to earn playing time in the future.

“It’s like a family,” Mariota says. “When it comes down to it, we support each other. It’s a fun atmosphere. They get me ready for each game, they make sure I’m OK, that I’m understanding what’s going on. It’s unbelievable, like a family.”