From a statistical standpoint, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota produced one of the most dominant seasons in NCAA history.
Mariota, who was honored as the 2014 Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award recipient Monday at the Fort Worth Club, led the nation in passing efficiency (181.7 rating). He threw 42 touchdown passes against four interceptions. He led the Ducks (13-2) to a berth in the inaugural CFP championship game while racking up 5,224 total yards and accounting for an NCAA-best 58 touchdowns (42 passing, 15 rushing, 1 receiving) in an up-tempo spread offense.
Mariota, a junior who has entered the 2015 NFL Draft, is confident his skills will translate to the next level, but finds it difficult to grasp the possibility that he could be the first player selected, as some mock drafts have projected.
"It’s still pretty surreal for me," Mariota said in a recent interview. "A dream of mine is to play in the NFL. Mobile quarterbacks have a place in the NFL. It’s tough for defenses to prepare for that."
Yet some analysts predict it may be equally difficult for Mariota, who rushed for 770 yards last season, to find the right fit for his dual-threat background at the next level because of his limited experience as a pocket passer at Oregon. That is the perspective of ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who projected Mariota as the No. 1 overall pick in a December mock draft but dropped him last week to No. 6 in an updated version.
"The one thing I don’t see with him is the anticipation as a passer," said McShay, who lists Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, the 2013 O’Brien winner, as his new top pick. "Marcus misses a higher percentage of intermediate and vertical throws than I’d like to see. He doesn’t have to make a lot of throws where he’s anticipating and throwing to a spot. That’s what concerns me."
Such sentiment rings hollow with Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, who watched Mariota (6 feet 4, 219 pounds) complete 68.3 percent of his passes last season and use his 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash to elude rushers when necessary. Helfrich called Mariota the most productive college quarterback he has ever seen, "bar none," and said he expects the Honolulu native to adapt quickly to the NFL game.
"Marcus can run any system and any offense at any level," Helfrich said. "Everything he does, he wants to do great. Marcus is a competitive perfectionist."
Helfrich expects Mariota to shine at the NFL Scouting Combine, which begins Tuesday in Indianapolis.
Mike Mayock, draft analyst for NFL Network, takes a more guarded approach. While he praised Mariota for having "everything you want" in regard to physical skills, Mayock downgraded Mariota because of questions about his "pocket awareness, the progressions and the reads" required in a pro-style offense.
To NFL scouts, key issues involve Mariota’s footwork as a dropback passer and his ability to spot secondary targets when forced to improvise. What no one questions about Mariota are his intangible traits and leadership qualities. Former teammates expect him to wow general managers during interviews at the combine the same way he commanded a room or a huddle at Oregon.
"I’d describe him as ‘consistent.’ He’s been the same guy from the first day he stepped on campus, whether he was a starter or not," said former Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, a senior who suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice before the team’s Rose Bowl triumph over Florida State. "He’s a team-first guy that everyone wants to follow. I’ve never seen him not prepared for a game or in a situation where he looked rattled. He’s one of those guys that works so hard in practice, the game seems easy to him."
That was evident during Mariota’s three-year tenure as the Ducks’ starting quarterback, which concluded with 10,796 passing yards and an eye-popping career ratio of touchdown passes (105) to interceptions (14). By comparison, Winston threw 18 interceptions last season and is considered Mariota’s prime competition for the No. 1 pick if Tampa Bay uses it, as anticipated, on a quarterback.
Mariota shrugged off nitpicks about his perceived shortcomings by NFL scouts.
"I don’t really pay attention to that," Mariota said. "That’s opinions that I can’t really control. If you allow yourself to get distracted by those things, it’ll force you to play outside of your game. I just focus on what I need to do to win games."
The record shows Mariota won enough to make Fort Worth the final stop on his hardware collection tour before focusing on impressing NFL scouts at this week’s combine in Indianapolis.