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Mariota stays cool as starting QB for No. 2 Ducks

    Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota scrambled out of the pocket during the second half against Washington in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, Oct. 6.

EUGENE, Ore. » Bringing the laid-back vibe of Hawaii to the mainland, Marcus Mariota has kept his cool as starting quarterback for No. 2 Oregon.

Despite a lack of experience, the 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman has helped guide the Ducks to a 6-0 start. Oregon ranks second nationally with an average of just over 52 points per game, and eighth with nearly 542 yards in total offense a game.

On a team known much more for its rushing than it’s passing, Mariota has thrown for 15 touchdowns, second in the Pac-12 only to USC’s Matt Barkley, with only five interceptions. He averages about 218 yards passing a game.

He threw for 198 yards and four touchdowns in Oregon’s 52-21 victory over then-No. 23 Washington the weekend before last. After a Saturday off, the Ducks visit Arizona State on Thursday night.

It was Mariota’s demeanor, not his arm, that first grabbed the attention of the Ducks, according to coach Chip Kelly.

“Very poised, very mature young man,” Kelly said. “He’s got a good head on his shoulders, is smart, cerebral. His mental makeup and character are things that as a coach staff were more impressive than his athletic ability, and his athletic ability, we felt, was outstanding. “

Receiver Josh Huff agreed with Kelly that Mariota brings more to the Ducks than just stats.

“I don’t think anything rattles him,” Huff said. “We all look up to him.”

On the travel squad last season, Mariota piqued the interest of fans during Oregon’s annual spring game when he threw for 202 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for two additional scores.

The performance threw into question the status of Bryan Bennett, a sophomore who was backup to starter Darron Thomas last season. Bennett had more experience, having completed 25 of 46 passes for 369 yards and six touchdowns. He started in a victory over Colorado when Thomas was out with a sprained knee.

The competition between the two went on behind closed doors in fall camp, with Mariota emerging as the first freshman to start in an opener for Oregon since Danny O’Neil in 1991.

Through the first six games of the season, Mariota said there’s something that can be gleaned from every game, even if it’s a decisive win.

“Every week you can get better. That’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned. You can come off a really good game and try to focus on a couple of things and get better at it,” he said. “The ceiling is so high for our offense, that we’ve just got to continue to work hard, and things will look good for us.”

Mariota is the product of St. Louis High School in Honolulu. He threw for 32 touchdowns and only five interceptions in leading the Crusaders to an 11-1 record and the state title as a senior. He was widely considered one of the state’s best quarterback prospects since Tommy Chang.

But just because he’s mellow doesn’t mean he doesn’t assert himself.

When there was some trash talking with the Northwest rival Huskies, Mariota answered back.

“I’m never the kind of guy that, if you disrespect me or disrespect my teammates, I’m not going to just let that go,” he said. “There’s situations when you can keep your head, there’s situations where you need to say something.”

Mariota is one of several local players on the Ducks’ roster. The list includes linebacker Isaac Ava, defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, offensive lineman Mana Greig, tight end Kao Ka’ai, and defensive tackle Wade Keliiipi.

Kelly was asked after the Washington win what the players from Hawaii bring to the team, and he quipped: “First thing? Macadamia nuts. Somehow in our office, macadamia nuts keep showing up all the time. ” He also joked that it’s not bad as a coach to make recruiting trips to Hawaii.

But kidding aside, Kelly likes the unique feel they all bring to the team, not just Mariota.

“They’ve got a poise to them and a calmness,” Kelly said. “But they’re also real warriors and they’ll compete.”

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