EUGENE, Ore. — Get ready for Marcus 2.0.
That’s what Oregon coach Mark Helfrich looks to see from sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota as the No. 3 Ducks start the new season.
“We expect great things,” Helfrich said this week while Oregon prepped for Saturday’s opener against Nicholls State. “We want Marcus 2.0, a little bit better, faster, a better leader — all the things that go into being a great quarterback and a team leader. He’s a guy that from a potential standpoint, still has a lot left in the tank. Which is scary.”
Mariota was more succinct: “I’m ready to go. I really am.”
Last season at this point, Mariota was a redshirt freshman who had just been crowned Oregon’s starter — beating out Bryan Bennett after a fall camp competition that was mostly a mystery because the Ducks keep practices closed.
Oregon’s coaches made the right call: Mariota set the team’s single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, five rushing, one receiving). The first freshman selected to the Pac-12’s all-conference first team in 23 years, Mariota passed for 2,677 yards while completing a school-record 68.5 percent of his passes. He had 3,429 yards of total offense.
The numbers are even more impressive in that several times last season Mariota didn’t even play for an entire game because the Ducks had built a sizeable lead. Oregon averaged 49.6 points compared to 21.6 for opponents.
So it’s no surprise Mariota has popped up on a few Heisman Trophy preseason lists.
“I feel a lot more confident. After a year of being able to go through the ups and downs of the season, I was able to learn from all of those things and now I can apply it to this season,” Mariota said.
Nicholls State, which has won just one game in each of the last two seasons, plays in the FCS Southland Conference. Interestingly, the Louisiana team’s last game was also played in the state of Oregon. The Colonels were routed by the Oregon State Beavers 77-3 on Dec. 1, a game that had been pushed to the final week of the regular season because of Hurricane Isaac.
The Colonels were hit when their expected starter, Landry Klann, underwent offseason shoulder surgery and was sidelined for the entire season. Nicholls State will instead turn to junior Beaux Hebert, son of former New Orleans Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, to start at QB, with junior Kalen Henderson serving as backup.
The Colonels have never faced a team ranked in the top five.
Saturday’s game will be the head coaching debut of Helfrich, who was promoted when Chip Kelly left in January to coach the Philadelphia Eagles.
Oregon went 46-7 in four years under Kelly, who is credited with creating Oregon’s warp-speed spread-option offense. Last season Oregon went 12-1 and beat Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl.
As offensive coordinator under Kelly, Helfrich was Mariota’s tutor.
Mariota was on the practice squad in 2011 when the Ducks finished the season with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin and Darron Thomas was at quarterback. Thomas declared early for the NFL draft and many assumed the starter’s job would be passed on to Bennett, his backup.
Bennett appeared in 10 games last season as Mariota’s backup before transferring in January to Southeastern Louisiana.
Mariota’s backup for this season is still uncertain.
The depth chart for the Nicholls lists Jeff Lockie or Jake Rodrigues, both redshirt freshman who played on Oregon’s scout team last season. Locke threw for 217 yards and two scores in the spring game this year, while Rodrigues passed for 165 yards and two TDs.
Helfrich indicated this week that Lockie will be the first QB into the game against Nicholls if the Ducks sit down Mariota.
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