August 24, 2012
A highly-anticipated decision on who will serve as the next starting quarterback for the University of Oregon will, according to Rob Moseley of The Register-Guard, be released by the end of Friday afternoon, with Ducks head coach Chip Kelly anointing either sophomore Bryan Bennett or freshman Marcus Mariota head of what is arguably Division I college football’s most prolific and productive offense.
Bennett, hiding any trepidation he might feel heading into the final hours before Oregon’s first official depth chart of the 2012 season is made public, tells Moseley he isn’t “nervous,” just perhaps “a little anxious,” and plans to fend off nerves by taking in the political comedy “The Candidate” starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis at a local movie theater before meeting with members of the Ducks coaching staff.
Mariota wouldn’t go into details regarding his plans for the early part of Friday, but did comment, “I think we’re both anxious, but we both understand we made the team better, and that’s all we wanted to do in this whole thing. We’re excited to see what happens.”
Bennett and Mariota aren’t the only ones filled with anticipation in learning who will get the starting nod under center for the Ducks this fall, however, with local media and followers of the university’s football program watching intently what has been an absolutely see-saw battle between two athletic talents easily capable of being a starter at any other Division I program outside of Eugene.
That one has to ultimately be identified as “superior” to the other, to some, hardly seems fair – especially given that Kelly’s choice to lead Oregon’s offense to kickoff 2012 will likely come down to the most minute attribute as it relates to finding success while operating Kelly’s elaborate spread system.
Kelly, well known for playing his cards close to his chest, has appeared – at least on the surface – disconnected from all the buzz surrounding his selection of Bennett or Mariota as Oregon’s quarterback.
“We’ll bring them in, sit them down and tell them what our plan is going forward,” Kelly tells the Register Guard. “It’s not like this is the first time any of these guys has been in a battle for playing time. Every single one of these guys – if they just got here they probably went through it in high school, and every guy who was here last year went through the same thing.”
“There’s a lot of competition,” Oregon’s head coach adds. “That’s the great thing about this team. We’ve got a lot of depth, and we look at that as a positive.”
Offensive coordinator for the Ducks, Mark Helfrick, who says he and Kelly “see eye to eye on 99.99999 [percent] of things,” is following closely in line with Kelly’s comments on the quarterback battle, stating simply on the subject of Bennett v. Mariota, “We’ll sit down and talk about it, talk to them about it and then go from there.”
In talking on the process of naming a starter under center, neither Kelly nor Helfrick have provided any hint as to whether Oregon’s coaching staff as a whole is leaning toward or away from player over the other.
Listening to members of the local press covering University of Oregon football, however, the overwhelming favorite appears to be Mariota – the 12th-ranked quarterback prospect passer in the country for the Class of 2011, as rated by Rivals.com.
According to Adam Wells of The Los Angeles Times, though Mariota is undersized at 185 pounds, his arm strength and ability to makes plays with his legs – “imperative in this offense,” Wells reminds readers – makes him a more enticing option than Bennett to replace Darron Thomas, who departed school early in order to pursue a professional career in the NFL.
Bennett, of course, is the more experienced of the duo, having completed 25-of-46 passes for 369 yards and six touchdowns over the span of seven games played as a freshman last season. He also manufactured 199 yards rushing for the year, averaging 8.7 yards per attempt.
Yet, Bennett’s breakout performance in 2011 seemingly became a mere afterthought this spring, with Mariota turning heads – especially in the team’s annual spring game, in which he completed 15-of-18 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown and gained 97 yards on just four carries to go along with two additional scores on the ground – while Bennett struggled to retain the spark that made him the perceived future of the program at quarterback less than six months earlier.
And unfortunately for Bennett, as Wells writes, “That’s the final image we have of Mariota and Bennett in action. Since then it’s been a waiting game.”
Given that practices in the fall have been closed to the media and the public, it’s hard to gauge whether or not Bennett ever fully regained his composure.
One thing remains certain, however – Bennett must have done enough since the close of spring camp to make naming Oregon’s next starting quarterback an extremely difficult task for coaches.
Says Hrnoiss Grasu, a sophomore center for the Ducks, “I think it’s really, really close. I’m glad I don’t have to make that decision.”
Though unlikely, a third option could present itself Friday afternoon, with Kelly electing to do something he’s seemed opposed to doing in the past – making Bennett and Mariota co-starters, and inserting them into his offense in packages that play well to each player’s respective strengths.
It’s something that former head coach for the Ducks, Mike Bellotti, practiced on an ongoing basis until the emergence of Dennis Dixon under Kelly, then Oregon’s offensive coordinator.
Aaron Fentress of The Oregonian speaks to the subject in a piece released earlier this week, noting that between 1999 and 2008, the Ducks fielded more than one field commander under center at multiple points, with names such as Joey Harrington, Jay Feeley, Jason Fife, Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon, Brady Leaf, Nate Costa and Jeremiah Masoli all splitting time in a two-quarterback system at Oregon.
Dixon afforded a level of mastery that allowed Kelly to turn over full-reigns of the offense beginning in 2009, however – a luxury Kelly may find himself seriously wishing he was still afforded heading into the 2012 season and beyond.
To his credit, Kelly has told reporters within the last week, “I’m not opposed to playing two quarterbacks.”
At the same time, however, Kelly added this quib: “It’s kind of the like Pirates of the Caribbean. There are rules for pirates and there are guidelines for pirates.”
Whether or not Bennett or Mariota can ultimately shine in a shared role of Captain Jack Sparrow remains completely unseen.
Should a two quarterback system emerge, Kelly and his staff may be able to avoid – at least temporarily – a potentially troubling consequence of naming a single starter – whether or not the individual named No. 2 would remain in Eugene, or, instead, seek greener pastures playing for a program other than the University of Oregon.
It’s a scenario – albeit speculative – Fentress expands upon in some detail:
Should Bennett win the job, keep it and stay through his senior season, Mariota wouldn’t be in line to start until his own senior season, in 2015.
If Mariota is named the starter and remains in that position, Bennett would never become the No. 1 quarterback at Oregon.
Being so close to tasting glory, yet so far away, could prompt one to transfer, sitout a season, and still have time to make an impact with another program.
Fentress is quick to acknowledge that “a backup is only one injury [away] from getting his shot” in Eugene, noting “the injury factor is real, especially in a system that asks the quarterback to run the ball as much as Oregon does.”
“This reality,” he concludes, “not only puts pressure on Oregon to have more than one quality quarterback but lets the backup know how essential he could very well be.”
Still, whether or not that would be enough to satisfy a talent like Bennett or Mariota at the No. 2 option on Oregon’s depth chart is hard to determine.
And so anticipation will continue to grow throughout Friday, until – hopefully – some solid answers are provided by the release of Oregon’s first official depth chart of the 2012 season.