When Marcus Mariota began playing football as an elementary schooler in Honolulu, Hawaii, his father emphasized two points: If Marcus was going to play, he should make sure to have fun. And if they were going to have a catch, his son better know how to throw the ball back. At the time, Marcus was a receiver, so if he wanted to work on his skills at that position he also had to know how to throw the ball. Then, in his second year of Pop Warner, his team's quarterback moved up to the next age level. Suddenly Marcus's catches with his father became more significant. "Once the coaches learned I could throw a little bit, they said, 'Okay, you'll play quarterback,' " Mariota says. "I just kind of jumped in there."
These days, Mariota can throw more than a little bit. As a sophomore at Oregon last season, Mariota was named to the All–Pac-12 first team for the second consecutive season after throwing for 3,665 yards and 31 TDs (and just four interceptions) while leading the Ducks to an 11–2 record and an Alamo Bowl victory over Texas. But what makes the 6′ 4″ Mariota one of the most explosive players in college football is the added danger he presents with the ball in his hands. Last season, Mariota also ran 96 times for 715 yards and nine touchdowns, three of which were 46 yards or longer. He has already set Oregon's single-season record for total offensive yardage and after just two seasons ranks fourth on the school's career list in the category. This fall he will likely rise to first as he pursues an even loftier set of accolades: All-America honors, the Heisman Trophy, and perhaps the Ducks' first national championship.
Getting Off the Bench
As early as fourth grade, Mariota had a clear set of goals that included playing high school football at the nearby Saint Louis School and in college, which he detailed in a school project. (He actually dreamed of playing for USC, now one of his team's biggest rivals.) Yet the path from youth football in Hawaii to national stardom in Oregon was not a straight line. Once he got to Saint Louis, he appeared to be on the right track when he started at quarterback for the JV team his freshman year. As a sophomore, however, he was called up to the varsity squad, which meant he would spend the season as a backup. When he rode the bench again as a junior, he considered changing positions or even transferring schools in order to get on the field. "As an athlete, you get kind of anxious," Mariota says. "I wanted to play collegiately, and I thought my opportunity was closing."
Thanks to a chance appearance on game tape, it wasn't. Current Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich was the Ducks' offensive coordinator in 2010. He was watching video of another recruit when he saw Mariota make a few impressive throws that caught his eye. After gushing about Mariota's throwing mechanics to then head coach Chip Kelly, Helfrich offered the high school backup a scholarship, which Mariota accepted. When Saint Louis High's previous quarterback graduated before Mariota's senior year, Mariota got a chance to show everyone the skills that appealed to Helfrich. In 12 games Mariota threw for 32 touchdowns. The Crusaders lost just once on the way to their first state championship in eight years.
Big Man on Campus
By the time Mariota arrived in Eugene, in the summer of 2011, he was considered a three-star prospect. But in a program as powerful as Oregon's, that only means so much. In part because he came from a state thousands of miles off of most people's radar, Mariota still felt relatively unknown. He entered college with a chip on his shoulder, but the feeling was familiar. "Those years I had where I wasn't playing really motivated me to not feel that way again," Mariota says. "I wanted to come in and see where I belong and prove my worth."
Players often talk about how fast the game can seem when jumping from high school to college. At Oregon, that takes on an added meaning thanks to the Ducks' signature Blur offense, a no-huddle scheme in which the ball is snapped as quickly as possible after the previous play ends. Although Mariota had run a somewhat similar spread offense in high school, learning the details and language of Oregon's version required staying up late and waking up early to draw plays and master the playbook.
"The first couple of days of camp, your head's spinning just because of how fast everything is going," Mariota recalls. "But you go through a couple of practices and the pace in your mind starts to slow down."
Mariota sat out his first year of college as a redshirt, which gave him extra time to study. The next summer, he had mastered the offense well enough to earn the starting job in his first season on the active roster. Just as in Pop Warner and high school, Mariota was ready for the task when called upon: In his very first start, against Arkansas State, he completed 18 of 22 passes for 200 yards and three touchdowns in the first half alone. Later in the season, against Arizona State, he even dusted off his receiving skills when he caught a touchdown pass from his backup, Bryan Bennett. In the same game, he broke an 86-yard touchdown run. With the speed and skill to match Oregon's offense, Mariota became the first freshman quarterback since 1989 to be named to the first-team of the Pac-12's all-conference squad. The Blur had become crystal clear to Mariota, making it even easier to follow his father's first requirement from childhood. "I love playing in that offense," Mariota says. "It's just so much fun."
"Just Another Friend"
While Mariota is now the master of fast pace on the field, he takes time to slow down off of it. At least once a week, Mariota and several of his teammates volunteer at the Boys & Girls Club of Emerald Valley near the Oregon campus. Mariota has been coming since his freshman year, playing dodgeball and competing in eating contests with local children. He's such a regular that his status as a star athlete is an afterthought.
"It's a joy to be out there and having fun with the kids," Mariota says. "They don't see me as a Ducks quarterback. They see me as just another friend, and I think that's really cool."
Of course, as many Pac-12 defenders would attest, Mariota is far from just another guy. He has spent this off-season focusing on further improving his game by refining his footwork, which he says caused many of his inaccurate throws last season. Will that be enough to earn Oregon a championship? Mariota insists that the Ducks' focus is less on where they end up than on the next game ahead of them. "We tell ourselves that if we do that, when we pick our heads up in December, we'll like where we're at," he says. Knowing Mariota, he will get there fast — and enjoy doing it.
For more on the upcoming season, check out SI Kids' 2014 College Football Preview!
Photos: Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated, Steve Dykes/Getty Images
College Football Preview 2014: Heisman Contender Marcus Mariota Has Oregon Thinking National Title
In The Mag This Month