SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Unprompted, almost every Oregon player found a way to bring things back to their young quarterback, Marcus Mariota.
Such is the pull of the 6-foot-4, 211-pound redshirt freshman from Honolulu who led the Ducks to an 11-1 record and No. 5 ranking headed into Thursday’s Fiesta Bowl against No. 7 Kansas State.
“Playing with Marcus this season has been great, just being around him and his personality and how he approaches things,” Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas said. “And he’s only a freshman ... I’m just excited that I get to keep playing with him because I know what he’s capable of.”
Mariota threw for 2,511 yards, 30 touchdowns and six interceptions this season while rushing for 690 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers could have been much more ostentatious — the Ducks won five games by more than 30 points and Mariota often found himself sitting for most of the second half with the game out of reach.
“I feel really blessed to have played with Marcus this year,” Oregon running back Kenjon Barner said. “Just to watch him develop and grow with each game.”
For his efforts, he was the first freshman named All-Pac 12 since USC’s Todd Marinovich in 1989.
“I think people really love being around (Mariota), I know I do,” Oregon center Hroniss Grasu said. “He’s so laid-back that you can’t help but be kind of taken in by that vibe. He’s got a calmness about him.”
Mariota’s ascension to starting quarterback was a winding road. He was one of two high school quarterbacks committed to Oregon in 2011 — the other was Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who decommitted and signed with Texas A&M. Then, Oregon starter Darron Thomas made the mystifying decision to leave school early and declare for the NFL Draft — he wasn’t picked — after two years as the Ducks’ starter and leading the team to the BCS title game in 2010 and the Rose Bowl in 2011.
Finally, Mariota had to beat out Grasu’s high-school teammate, Bryan Bennett, during fall camp. Bennett was Thomas’ backup in 2011 and parts of 2010.
By the time the Ducks’ season opener against Arkansas State rolled around on Sept. 1, Oregon fans’ excitement to see Mariota play had reached a fever pitch.
“I think after that first drive against Arkansas State, where there was a third-and-13, being able to convert it, I really started to gain confidence in myself and just went from there,” Mariota said. “I could see it with the other guys, too. I think confidence, being able to be comfortable, really involves everybody.
“To be able to go through all these experiences, to find myself and this comfort level, has been a fun journey.”
Mariota will be a Heisman candidate headed into 2013, and the Ducks will likely be a preseason Top 10 team — hype he has shown he’s ready and able to deal with.
“(Mariota) never really makes the same mistake twice,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “He’s great at understanding and grasping the reason why things happened and moving forward. The amazing thing is he’s only a redshirt freshman, so how far can he go?
“It’s been an amazing thing to watch. A really special, young talent.”