Marcus Mariota is the anti-superstar.
Sure, Oregon’s redshirt junior quarterback is a preseason All-American and favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. His gaudy statistics after two seasons captaining the Ducks’ explosive offense stack up well against the very best quarterbacks in the country.
“The way he plays kind of speaks for itself,” Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich said at July’s Pac-12 media days in Hollywood.
Indeed, when the Oregon redshirt junior takes the field on game day, he’s a dynamo. Everything about that Marcus Mariota–the one seen on televisions around the country each Saturday–is loaded with flash and pizzazz.
From his ability to read defenses, exploit gaps with explosive speed and distribute the ball among a bevy of teammates, few players in college football are as exciting.
— Aaron Allen (@aaronmallen) August 23, 2014
His highlight reel-filling ability is recognized among opposing coaches around the Pac-12 Conference.
“My assertion, which I said last year and I held to last year and held this year, the best quarterback in the nation is Marcus Mariota,” Stanford head coach David Shaw said. “There is nothing like him in college football.”
Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre, a self-described “nervous eater” who has changed his diet in an effort to lose weight, said breaking down film on Mariota had him reaching for his protein shake.
Everything about Mariota on the football field is eye-catching, right down to his team’s flashy uniforms.
That Marcus Mariota is Superman. When he takes off his Nike-branded cape, he’s very much Clark Kent.
“I remember the guy that showed up [to Oregon in 2011] and he talks to you like this,” Helfrich said, tucking his chin to his chest and stooping his shoulders to emulate Mariota’s shyness as a freshman.
After two seasons in which Mariota piled up more than 6,200 yards and 63 touchdowns through the air, with another 14 scores and nearly 1,500 yards via the rush, he’s no longer the sheepish youngster of which Helfrich spoke.
Mariota discussed pushing himself to be a more vocal leader in 2014.
“I’ve come a long way. I’ve learned that I can influence with my voice and I’ve learned to speak up a little mroe,” he said.
But even as Mariota speaks up, his greatest asset as the Ducks leader is how he performs.
“One of the best things in my day was watching that guy practice because he’s phenomenal,” Helfrich explained. “He cares more about practice rep 13 in period 12 of 7-on-7 than anybody I’ve ever been around. That carries over to every single guy in our program.”
Behind Mariota’s guidance, Oregon was flying high in 2013. A late-season knee injury proved to be both this and the Ducks’ kryptonite, however.
The Ducks dropped a pair of Pac-12 games in November to fall out of the national championship hunt. And, despite putting together one of the best individual seasons, Mariota was left out of the Heisman ceremony.
“Marcus goes from the Heisman front-runner and we lose a game and he’s the worst player in history,” Helfrich lamented. “I just don’t understand how that is possible. Guys in other conferences go .500 in their conference and they’re still the greatest player.”
Though perhaps not a direct reference to Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner was a 2013 Heisman finalist despite being slowed by his own late-season injury. Manziel’s Texas A&M Aggies just so happened to finish .500 in the SEC.
Manziel and Mariota seem to share a cosmic bond. Both were 2011 recruits, and Oregon was among the programs pursuing Manziel. The local product landed at A&M, Mariota signed with Oregon and both programs flourished as a result.
Both wowed in 2012 and 2013 with their ability to scramble as well as they passed–and pass as well they scrambled. Otherwise, however, if one is Superman, the other is Bizarro.
Manziel is arguably the biggest college football celebrity ever, known for partying with musicians and models. Manziel’s ever move is fodder for every sports gossip website, talk radio and Twitter.
Marcus Mariota? Not so much–though he did blow up Twitter once this offseason. A photo of him in mortarboard at spring graduation got a few dozen retweets.
— University of Oregon (@Univ_Of_Oregon) June 16, 2014
“We have to finish seasons better, we have to finish drives better, not leave points on the board.”
And while Manziel took his game to the NFL, Mariota is back on campus for at least another season. He achieved one of his goals by graduating in general science.
“Coach Helfrich and a lot of the other coaches at the university do an awesome job of continuing to harp on us that education is so important,” Mariota said. “It’s truly special to be part of [graduation].”
The Pac-12 is promoting Mariota’s studies in a program touting student-athletes in the STEM majors.
Mariota’s other goal, he said, is to win his first Pac-12 North divisional and conference championships. From there, a spot in the College Football Playoff may not be far behind.
Those are goals that have barely eluded both Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks the last two seasons, slipping away in November losses. He said that the mentality Oregon is emphasizing to remedy that in the bigger picture also applies to the Ducks on a weekly basis.
“We have to finish seasons better. We have to finish drives better and not leave points on the board,” he said.
Experts seem unanimous in their belief that this is the season Mariota and the Ducks get over that hump. Oregon was media’s pick to win the conference, and the Ducks open 2014 ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
“There’s always high expectations in Eugene,” Mariota said. “We’ll take that in stride and hopefully have another successful season.”
On Saturday against South Dakota, Clark Kent dons his Superman cape for the first time in what could be a season of galactic proportions.