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For Ducks Mariota, the sky is the limit

Despite not finishing games, QBs name on Heisman short list


by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota gives the Ducks national championship hopes, but UOs path gets tougher on Saturday with a Pac-12 road game at Washington.EUGENE — Years ago, and before he became Oregon’s offensive coordinator, Scott Frost was beneath center for Nebraska when the Cornhuskers won a national championship. Frost says that the difference between a very good team and a team that wins a title often boils down to the signal caller.

“Anytime you have a team that’s good enough to compete for a national title, you usually go 10-2 or 9-3 if you don’t have a great quarterback,” Frost says. “If you have a great one, you have a great chance.

"Every year, there’s probably about six teams good enough to win a national championship. It comes down to making plays in two or three close games. It helps if you have a great quarterback.”

Frost says Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has everything he needs to give the Ducks a shot at a national championship.

“He’s so much ahead of where I was it’s scary,” Frost says. “For his age, he’s as smart of a guy as I’ve been around. He throws so much better than I ever did. He gives us a real chance."

This week, after five blowouts against inferior opponents, the schedule turns difficult for the Ducks, who will play at 1 p.m. Saturday at Washington.

Mariota knows the pressure that comes with making a run for a championship. He did so last season before Oregon fell to Stanford. And, as a youngster, he led his Pop Warner team to a state championship and later led St. Louis High to the Hawaii state title.

“It’s different at every level, but it’s really just focusing on one game at a time, one practice at a time,” Mariota says. “Going through those kinds of deals, it will give you a little confidence when stuff starts to get hard.”

In his first season as a starter last year, Mariota was exceptional, throwing for 2,677 yards and 32 TDs and running for 752 yards and five TDs. Oregon coach Mark Helfrich says that with Mariota’s knowledge of the game increasing and the 6-4, 210-pounder weighing 10 to 12 pounds more than last season, the QB is vastly improved this year.

“He’s a lot more confident,” Helfrich says. “Seeing things, doing things against different defenses, you’re adding to your catalog of knowledge and your confidence. Just his overall command is better with another year in the system.

"He’s also put on a little weight. A lot of times for a quarterback that’s confidence weight. Maybe in their mind they can take a shot or get an extra yard here or there. Not that he’s going to line up at fullback.”

When the 2013 season began, Mariota struggled a bit with his accuracy. He has since begun finding his targets more regularly. Through five games, he has completed 76 of 134 passes for 1,358 yards and 14 TDs.

“Nothing has really changed,” Mariota says, of the difference between the beginning of the season and the past few games. “I’ve focused on being consistent. Those guys are getting open. I’ve just got to get them the ball.”

While Mariota had to find his groove throwing the ball, he has been red-hot running the ball all year, compiling 338 yards and seven TDs on 28 carries.

Frost says Mariota is much more than just a running quarterback, though.

“People compare Marcus to guys in the NFL who are runners first, and he’s not a runner first,” Frost says. “He’s an incredible passer who just also happens to be able to run. That makes him special.”

Mariota’s stats have made him a contender for the Heisman Trophy, although the blowouts have put him on the sidelines late in games instead of on the field, padding his stats.

“We took him out exactly when we wanted to take him out in the Colorado game,” Helfrich says of last week's 57-16 win at Boulder. “And I heard some chatter that there were votes going out for some other (Heisman candidate) players (because of that). But, if you can’t see how good that dude is …”

Mariota leans on his family and coaching staff to keep him levelheaded when he hears his name mentioned in the same breath as college football’s most coveted individual prize.

“They do an awesome job of helping me cancel that out and focus on one day at a time,” he says.

Mariota already knows what fame tastes like, but the redshirt sophomore tries to use his notoriety as selflessly as possible, doing things like taking time to sign autographs after games.

“To be able to connect with the fans, that’s what it’s about,” he says. “We kind of forget that we’re in a role of influence. If we have that power to be a good influence, we might as well do it that way. That’s what I hope I’m able to do.”

Mariota’s time at Oregon could be limited. Frost would love to keep him around as long as possible, but if and when Mariota declares for the NFL draft, Frost sees a bright future for him.

“The sky is the limit for where he could get picked and how well he can do at the next level,” Frost says. “The good thing about him is if he decides to go, he’ll do great. If he decides to stay, it isn’t like anybody is going to expose a weakness in his game. If he stays another year, he’s not the kind of guy who you’re going to all of a sudden see doesn’t have a good enough arm or isn’t a good enough athlete. He’s got all the tangibles.”