The “Johnny Manziel Show” being broadcast to America live from College Station could have consumed Eugene, Oregon during the offseason. Back in 2010, a young Manziel was trying to pin down which school he would fax his official letter of intent on Signing Day. However, after a visit to the leafy campus in Eugene, Oregon, Manziel gave his verbal to the Oregon Ducks.
Instead, Manziel switched his commitment to Texas A&M, and as a result Oregon’s football program had a quaint and boring summer. That will all change when sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota lines up under center for the first time in the 2013 season.
Unlike Texas A&M, the Ducks are no one man band, which makes it difficult for any of their skill position players to shine in the Heisman Trophy conversation. Somehow the most riveting offense of the decade hasn’t produced a Heisman Trophy winner. Mariota is the only player with the ball in his hands for every play of every possession with the Ducks (in the first three quarters), and makes superb use of his touches.
Light on his feet and pinpoint accurate by air, Mariota is a carbon copy of rail-thin Oregon dual threat legend Dennis Dixon. Before Dixon’s knee buckled and his ACL tore in a loss to Arizona in 2007, he had Oregon on a smooth course for a national title, and was the overwhelming favorite to scramble away with the Heisman Trophy over Florida sophomore Tim Tebow. The national title and the Heisman Trophy are inextricably linked for Oregon’s quarterback and that remains true today.
Much has changed from last season for the Ducks. Chip Kelly is gone, the uniforms have been upgraded again, Kenjon Barner has been replaced by a platoon backfield and defensive end Dion Jordan departed for the NFL. However, their most significant offensive skill player is back for another crack at the big time.
The loss of Barner and Jordan is just part of the college football cycle, but their absence puts a bigger onus on Mariota’s right shoulder to do the heavy lifting in 2013.
Most freshmen stink right out of the gates. Even Manziel’s college career took a few Saturdays to get rolling, but the buoyant Mariota immediately hopped into the starting role without a float and ripped through the competition.
Under Kelly’s stewardship, the Oregon ensemble has lived a Fast and Furious existence. A strong lead (Chip Kelly), deep interchangeable casts, two hours of fast-paced action and an opponent left choking on their exhaust pipes has been the recent standard.
The biggest difference between Mariota and Manziel, aside from their personalities, is that Mariota stumbled against Stanford while Manziel made the plays that thrusted him into the Heisman Trophy path. His stats didn’t blow anyone away because he sat during most fourth quarters after Oregon built commanding leads, but his 2,677 passing yards, 752 rushing yards and 32 touchdowns to six interceptions compare favorably to Dixon’s ’07 totals.
Mariota gets lost in the Oregon system and ensemble, but if he can lift them over the national championship hump without Chip Kelly on their sideline, you can count on seeing Mariota stand all alone on the Heisman stage. This is Shark Week, but 2013 may be year of the Duck.