In the hunt for the next great quarterback at Oregon, all signs entering the fall seemed to point toward Bryan Bennett. The third-year sophomore played in nine games last season backing up Darron Thomas, and in his one start, led the Ducks to a 45-2 road win at Colorado. Not too shabby a debut, huh?
However, if you really followed the quarterback position closely in Eugene these last few months, you also might’ve noticed that insiders around the Ducks program and fans alike couldn’t seem to get enough of redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota. Mariota dazzled in the spring and straight through fall camp, leaving Chip Kelly with one of the best problems a college football coach can have: While other schools like Texas, Florida, Auburn were deciding their quarterback battles based essentially on “who sucked less,” Kelly was choosing between two guys who were fully capable of running his offense.
Either way, Kelly came down with his final decision today. And in a bit of an upset, it was Mariota who named the starter for Oregon’s Week 1 game against Arkansas State. The news was first reported by OregonLive.com’s Aaron Fentriss.
The news is equal parts surprising, and not surprising for the Ducks, who are looking to win their fourth straight Pac-12 title.
It’s surprising in the sense that Bennett appeared to be the natural fit to follow in Thomas’ footsteps, after the latter left Eugene a year early for the NFL last winter. In nine games Bennett finished with an average of 8.7 yards per carry and threw for six touchdowns and zero interceptions. And in a lot of ways, many believed that it might’ve actually been Bennett’s presence which indirectly pushed Thomas out the door. Despite being Oregon’s career leader in touchdown passes, many felt that had Thomas stayed, Bennett might’ve actually jumped him on the depth chart and been named the starter entering 2012.
At the same time, this news isn’t surprising, if only because everyone around Oregon’s program seems to believe that Mariota had outperformed Bennett since the start of spring practice in April. And now the most intriguing athlete in Eugene gets to take ahold of the most exciting offense in college football.
As for what to expect from Mariota, well admittedly not a ton is known about him. We know he’s a freak athlete. We know he was a Hawaii high school legend. And we know Oregon fans lose their minds every time his name is mentioned, like teenage girls at a Justin Bieber concert. That’s really it.
In terms of his actual on the field exploits, Mariota’s breakout came in the Oregon spring game, where he completed 18 of 22 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing for 99 yards and two scores. One of those touchdowns was an 82-yard run where Mariota trotted into the end zone basically untouched. It was that moment when most Oregon fans officially seemed to jump aboard the Mariota bandwagon and prefer him as the starter going forward.
And based on that performance and the limited reports we heard out of fall camp (Oregon’s practices were mostly closed to the media), it does appear as though Kelly made the right choice.
While Bennett would’ve provided a smooth transition from the Thomas era, reports indicate Mariota was the better player, and simply put, the better player should be playing. Add Mariota’s 4.5 speed in with the versatility of backs De’Anthony Thomas, Joshua Huff and Kenjon Barner, and this offense should continue to operate at a level that will rank them amongst the nation’s best.
So what exactly does Mariota bring to the table?
The YouTube clip of Mariota’s high school exploits should provide a lot of the info you need.
Otherwise, we’ll find out on September 1 like everyone else does, when the Ducks open with Arkansas State at home.
For all his opinion, analysis and insight on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.