Oregon QB sees positives in team's many changes

by: COURTESY OF JOHN LARIVIERE - Oregon Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota chats with UO public address announcer Don Essig at the Oregon Sports Awards.Being Marcus Mariota the starting quarterback of the Oregon Ducks and one of the nation’s premier young college football players hasn’t quite dawned on the native of Hawaii.

“That’s funny to hear that,” he said, while mingling with fans and fellow celebrities at the Oregon Sports Awards Sunday. “I guess I gotta take it with a grain of salt. I’m still learning. I’m a young guy. This is all still new to me.

“My family told me before I even came here (to the awards show) to take it all in, just enjoy the experience.”

Dressed casually, wearing a UO shirt, Mariota looked every bit the laid-back Hawaii product who enamored himself with coaches and players, and then thrilled everybody with his wonderful play for the Fiesta-Bowl-champion Ducks.

If not for a slip in a 17-14 loss to Stanford, Mariota might have been a Heisman Trophy candidate. He had 2,677 yards passing, 32 TD passes (with only six interceptions) and a 68.5 completion percentage, while displaying moves and breakaway speed in rushing for 752 yards (7.1 per carry) and five scores.

Life has changed for Mariota, who won’t turn 20 until October, after his sophomore season begins. Out is head coach Chip Kelly and in is new head man Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Scott Frost. The change excites Mariota, mostly because Helfrich and Frost recruited him.

“It’s awesome, really,” he said, of Helfrich’s ascension. “Now I get to learn more from him. ... You can tell immediately when you step in the room with him, he wants the best for you. He always says that. When you continue to hear that, and through his actions, you understand he’s really there for you.”

Mariota describes Helfrich as disarmingly sarcastic, with words for everything and more open than Kelly.

Frost played quarterback and ran the option at Nebraska, won a national championship and then played defensive back in the NFL.

“He’s a good guy,” Mariota said. “I’m sure I can learn a lot from him.”

Helfrich showed Mariota clips of Frost playing quarterback at Nebraska. He laughed at a suggestion that it was in black and white. Frost actually played at Stanford and Nebraska in the 1990s, back when Mariota the young boy ran around the beaches of Oahu. Still, Frost, like Helfrich, can relate to Mariota because of his relatively young age in the coaching ranks — 38.

“He’ll definitely help me on and off the field with leadership,” Mariota said. “He was a winner. He has that winning mentality.”

The Oregon quarterback scene also has changed, as Bryan Bennett elected to leave the Ducks and transfer elsewhere. Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie will be competing with Mariota, surely to be his backup, and the Ducks have signed prep Damion Hobbs of Cedar Hill, Texas.

“Honestly, they’re pretty equal,” Mariota said, of Rodrigues and Lockie. “I’m really looking forward to this, to seeing them compete and seeing what competition will bring out in them. That’s very interesting to me.”

The 6-4, 210-pound Mariota wants to gain some weight in the offseason, but not lose any of his gifted speed. He also wants to work on the “mental part” of playing quarterback, which includes being more of a vocal leader — “I’m a little more quiet than others.”

Defensive lineman Taylor Hart, who also attended the Oregon Sports Awards, praised Mariota for his abilities and demeanor.

“He’s a great guy, obviously a great quarterback,” Hart said. As for Mariota’s talents, the QB has uncanny running ability and sense to avoid defenders, Hart added. “He’s got that quarterback instinct,” Hart said.

Spring ball takes place in April, and Mariota will be interested to see the changes that could come under Helfrich. Mariota watched as LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner enjoyed All-American seasons in UO’s run-first spread option, and now in steps sophomore Byron Marshall as the likely new starting running back, while De’Anthony Thomas and heralded recruit Thomas Tyner will also surely factor into the running game.

Could the Ducks chuck the ball more, given that Mariota, all the top receivers and star tight end Colt Lyerla are coming back?

Mariota hopes so.

“I would love that, to be honest with you,” he said. “It’s fun to throw the ball around. I’m sure Coach Helfrich and Coach Frost will draw something up.”

What will also be interesting to watch is how Helfrich coaches on game day. While Helfrich and the other assistants developed UO offensive game plans, Kelly continued to call plays through his four years as head coach, seemingly always knowing the right buttons to push.

Will Helfrich exhibit the same edge?

“Coach Helfrich was up to the task, if it was given to him,” Mariota said. “He was inputting a lot, what he thought would work. It shouldn’t be a drastic change for him. (Kelly) was able to find a weakness and exploit it, and I’m sure Coach Helfrich will take what Coach Kelly has done and go with it.”

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