Oregon head coach Chip Kelly
After putting up gaudy first half-statistics in his first live action before an Oregon spring game-record crowd at Autzen Stadium, redshirt freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota showed why the competition at the position will be anything but a cake walk.
One word comes to mind summing up Oregon redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota’s debut performance at quarterback in front of his first live crowd inside Autzen Stadium.
Before a spring game record 44,129 in attendance Saturday afternoon, Mariota staked rightful claim to his spot in the battle for the Ducks’ starting quarterback position with sophomore Bryan Bennett, completing 15-of-18 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 97 yards and two scores on only four attempts -- in the first half.
Yes, the Honolulu, Hawaii native certainly did Bennett’s “Fighting Ducks” team dirty in a resounding 41-14 win for Team “Mighty Oregon” to conclude practices for the Ducks this spring.
“I think Mariota played really, really good,” said Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti and coach of Team “Mighty Oregon” after the game. “I’m not a quarterback coach, but I thought he was fantastic.”
For the game, Mariota accounted for 301 yards of total offense, appearing throughout to be more the composed signal-caller compared to Bennett, who tossed two interceptions and struggled through stretches of scoreless drives despite finishing with a respectable 209 yards passing on 19-of-32 completions and a touchdown.
“I think Marcus had a really good day, but I think there’s some decisions he could make better,” said a coy Kelly, who reassured members of the media that no quarterback decision would be made until the Ducks’ season opener versus Arkansas State on September 1.
“I thought at times Bryan did some good things (too), but the tough thing when you split yourself in two teams, is sometimes I think you’re victimized by some drops or some protection things...I’m pleased with our quarterbacks. It’s not a position where I’m worried about whether it’s Bryan or Marcus next year.”
While the battle between Mariota and Bennett won’t be decided by one singular performance, it was hard to overlook how impressive Mariota was on Saturday. Though he did throw an interception of his own -- a play Mariota admitted he tried to force -- there was a sense of calm and confidence about Mariota’s play was reminiscent of former Kelly pupils, Darron Thomas and Dennis Dixon.
“He’s got that Hawaiian Islands, just laid back, cool breeze kind of attitude,” said Kelly of Mariota.
“It helps him.”
Junior wide receiver Daryle Hawkins also did his part to help Mariota Saturday afternoon, hauling in four catches for 55 yards, including a 35 yard-touchdown pass that accounted for Mariota’s only throwing score of the day. Throughout the spring, Hawkins’ name has come up frequently from coaches as a player who has made significant strides since last fall. Now looked to as one of the elder statesmen of the comparatively young wide receiver corps, Hawkins admitted he’s getting more and more comfortable in his new-ish role.
“I just feel like I’m developing as a receiver as a whole,” said Hawkins. “Whether it’s route running, technique -- really just getting a feeling for getting open. Once you get a feel for getting open, that’s how you catch more balls. It’s one thing to talk about it, but once you get that muscle memory and feel and seeing things on the run; I just try to take it to the next level.”
Defensively, sophomore cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu had arguably the best day of any player on that side of the ball for either team this afternoon. After tallying six solo tackles and a spectacular diving interception of Mariota, Aliotti stated the Chino Hills, Calif. native’s performance in the spring game was only a capper to the tremendous month of practices he has had.
“I thought he had a great spring,” said Aliotti of Ekpre-Olomu. “He jumped out at me. He’s one of those guys that had a great spring. I think he’s matured by leaps and bounds and I really noticed Ifo this spring as far as knowledge, his play; just really he jumped out at me. I (am) proud of him.”
With spring now in the rearview mirror and a little over three months to go between now and when the Ducks return to the practice field in August to prepare in earnest for the 2012 season, there are still many questions that need answering before Sept. 1. Aside from the obvious decision that remains to be made at quarterback between Bennett and Mariota, Kelly said that developing depth at all positions will be chief among his team’s concerns heading into the fall.
“I think at certain positions we’ve got some good front line-guys,” said Kelly. “Linebackers are great -- with Kiko Alonso and Michael Clay returning -- but really, who are those guys that are going to be in the rotation because our guys don’t play every snap on the defensive side of the ball.
“Offensively, we’ve got some question marks at wide receiver,” Kelly continued. “Who is going to be able to go along with some of the kids we have coming back because we graduated some good players. We lost David Paulson at tight end, where are those snaps going to be distributed? ...Those will be some question marks moving forward.”
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