IN WHAT WILL ALMOST SURELY BE HIS LAST YEAR AT OREGON, JUNIOR QUARTERBACK MARCUS MARIOTA IS THROWING LIKE A PRO, GROWING AS A LEADER AND ANSWERING THE FEW QUESTIONS THAT STAND BETWEEN HIM AND THE NO. 1 PICK IN THE NFL DRAFT. HERE'S THE FULL BREAKDOWN: STRENGTH BY STRENGTH, WEAKNESS BY WEAKNESS
MARCUS MARIOTA looks as if he were designed by a franchise-quarterback computer program. Oregon's redshirt junior is 6'4" and 219 pounds, runs a sub-4.5 40 and has all the other measurables any team would want, from arm strength to elusiveness to an incredibly quick mind.
Mariota also has a bulletproof work ethic and a desire to be great. Raised in Honolulu, he's kind and humble and soft-spoken and has never been linked to any sort of off-the-field trouble. At the VIP entrance to a Las Vegas club, he'd more likely hold the door open for someone than use it himself.
After his 318-yard, three-touchdown, come-from-behind performance in the season opener, a 46--27 win over a rugged Michigan State squad, Mariota is the odds-on favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NFL draft, if he leaves school early. (He'll graduate with a general science degree in December.) But as they do with any prospect, teams will find something to pick apart, and Mariota raises two questions in particular: Can he flourish outside the Ducks' quarterback-friendly system? And is he ... too nice?
UP CLOSE Mariota, who won't turn 21 until Oct. 30, looks a tad taller than his listed height, and thanks to the 16 pounds he's added since arriving at Oregon, he appears wiry strong and plays that way. He rarely goes down on first contact, even against 300-pound linemen, bringing to mind Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Against the Spartans, Oregon trailed 27--18 in the third quarter and faced third-and-10. Mariota broke three would-be sacks to escape the pocket, then made an overhand flip to running back Royce Freeman for 17 yards. The Ducks scored five plays later to begin a streak of three consecutive touchdown drives that delivered the victory. (This was also an example of making clutch plays when the team needs them.)
Mariota throws the ball with a quick, smooth and quiet over-the-top motion. There's a saying in baseball that a pitcher throws easy cheese—that is, he can bring the heat without taxing his body. Mariota doesn't have a rocket arm (although he can make all the throws needed), but he generates excellent velocity without exerting much energy. And he doesn't take a long stride when stepping into his throws, which is the foundation of a quick release.
Mariota showed his resolve, accuracy and ability to put a little zip on it when, with 10:29 left in the second quarter, the Spartans sent an all-out blitz with seven rushers. He carried through the play-action fake without a hint of stress and then whipped the ball to receiver Devon Allen on his front side before the safety could close the gap. It went the distance for a 70-yard touchdown and an 18--7 lead.
Then there's his speed. Even after Michael Vick, Vince Young, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, Mariota may project as the best dual-threat quarterback ever to come out of college. There simply hasn't been another guy with his athleticism who is as good a passer. He reportedly ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at a high school all-star combine, and his 82-yard run in Oregon's 2012 spring game, in which he outran all the defensive backs, is an often retold story.
The best comparison is with Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers. Taken 36th in the '11 draft, Kaepernick measured 6'5" and 233 pounds at the combine, at which he ran 4.53. Similar to Mariota's role in Oregon's spread, Kaepernick operated a cutting-edge scheme (Chris Ault's pistol at Nevada) that's designed to limit the quarterback's reads on each play.
Michigan State's pass rush broke through the Ducks' protection on third-and-nine at the 2:41 mark of the third quarter. Mariota escaped to the right and then outran four Spartans defenders to the first-down marker, a sprint of 18 yards after the drop-back. Kaepernick is likely the only NFL starter who could have done that.
But that's where the comparison should end. Mariota is a far more advanced passer. While Kaepernick has a stronger arm, he completed only 58.2% of his passes in college; after a 48--14 win over Wyoming last Saturday, in which he threw for 221 yards and two TDs while running for another 71 and two more scores, Mariota is at 66.2%. (In his first year as a starter, 2012, he connected on 68.5%.) That figure is certainly inflated by Oregon's scheme, which springs receivers wide-open by confusing the defense—the Spartans busted coverage five times to give up long gains—but quarterbacks are either accurate or they're not. Mariota has terrific ball placement.
HE'S NOT perfect, however. Mariota doesn't have great anticipation on his throws, and he's not smooth if his primary receiver is covered. Against the Spartans, he missed a wide-open receiver, Keanon Lowe, in the flat for a touchdown with 3:52 remaining in the first quarter because he didn't anticipate how the coverage would react to the routes.
For all his accuracy, he hasn't yet been asked to throw the top-level NFL routes—the skinny post (between two closing defenders in the middle of the field) and the dig, in which a receiver runs 15 to 20 yards down the field and cuts in front of a hard-charging cornerback. The Ducks don't even practice those routes in warmups because they're so foreign to the scheme. Mariota will also have to learn to "throw receivers open" against tight coverage, which is to say he'll have to put the ball in places that only the receivers can get to, such as a tight back-shoulder throw. It's a must in the NFL, but it can be learned. So if Mariota is drafted by, say, the Raiders, Rams, Texans, Titans or Cowboys, which use more of a pro-style system, he's going to need some retraining.
Of course, many NFL teams are adopting spread-offense principals now, so it may not matter as much. Either way, Mariota should make a much better transition to the NFL than most. He can function in any scheme, and, in fact, there's an argument to be made that Oregon's offense has stunted Mariota's growth. With his smarts and ability to make all the throws, Mariota appears capable of directing a much more complicated system.
The play against Michigan State that really teased Mariota's potential was the 37-yard touchdown strike to Lowe that gave the Ducks the lead for good at 32--27, near the end of the third quarter. Lowe ran a looping vertical route to the outside from his slot position, and the Spartans had enough defenders to thwart the play. But Mariota looked quickly at the receiver in the middle of the field, which cleared out the safety, then threw a dart to Lowe before he was truly open. That's graduate-level passing and indicates he is capable of running a full-field progression NFL offense.
WHEN ASKED, five high-level NFL executives agreed that Mariota's laid-back demeanor will be examined closely, though one of them admitted he didn't think it was fair question.
Fair or not, it has been asked about Mariota before. A New York Times story reported that when challenged by his coach at Saint Louis School in Honolulu to be more vocal with his teammates or run sprints, Mariota chose sprints. When he arrived in Eugene, some of the Ducks' coaches doubted that the quiet kid who took his cues from the upperclassmen could lead the team to great heights.
Outwardly, the concern is understandable. Before the game against Michigan State, the biggest nonconference game in Autzen Stadium history, it wasn't Mariota who stoked the flames by screaming encouragement at the team; it was senior cornerback Dior Mathis. And as the Spartans scored 20 straight points to take a 27--18 lead, Mariota was seen on the sideline only quietly clapping or giving players fist bumps.
Entering this season, Mariota admitted that he needed to be more of a leader to push the Ducks to a championship level. After all, they won the Pac-12 championship in the three seasons before he took over the starting job. They have been titleless in Mariota's two seasons, thanks to back-to-back losses to Stanford.
Some, but certainly not all, NFL teams want a quarterback who will be the unquestioned leader of the team, an alpha male. At least one team didn't see enough of a commanding persona from Teddy Bridgewater, taken 32nd by the Vikings in May, to consider drafting him. That's the landscape Mariota will be walking into.
But what players like Mariota and Bridgewater may lack in volubility, they make up for in leading by example. Both players never stop working, and they possess a levelheadedness that can and has rubbed off on teammates. People around Oregon football have no issue with Mariota's presence; everyone knows when he's in a room. Desire can speak louder than words.
Current NFL quarterbacks such as Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck aren't exactly known for throwing down in the middle of the pregame huddle, but all are bona fide franchise QBs. Manning and Flacco have Super Bowl rings.
Rather than emotion, Mariota will rely on his rare combination of throwing and athletic ability. He's the next-level prospect whose gifts shout star, even if he speaks in hushed tones.
If Mariota is drafted by, say, the Raiders, Rams, Texans, Titans or Cowboys, which use more of a pro-style system, he's going to need retraining.
Duck and Chuck
Since 1999, Oregon has had five quarterbacks drafted, including two picked No. 3 overall and one second-rounder, but they've had limited success.
1999 (No. 3)
2001 (No. 155)
2002 (No. 3)
2006 (No. 49)
2008 (No. 156)
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Photograph by Jonathan Ferrey For Sports Illustrated
DOUBLE WHAMMY In 2013, Mariota threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions and rushed for 715 yards and nine scores. He shows no signs of slowing down this year.
Photographs by Jonathan Ferrey For Sports Illustrated
STIFF TEST Mariota's easygoing demeanor masks the passion that was evident in his 318-yard, three-TD performance against Michigan State's vaunted defense.
ROD MAR FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
SPREAD AND SHRED In a play designed similarly to the one on which he hit Lowe for a touchdown, Mariota (1) looks to his right, which could pull the safety (2) toward the middle of the field, clearing a lane to hit Allen (3) up the sideline.
TOM HAUCK/GETTY IMAGES (SMITH)
OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES (FEELEY)
OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES (HARRINGTON)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CLEMENS)
DUSTIN SNIPES FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (DIXON)