By ANNE M. PETERSON
EUGENE, Ore. — Marcus Mariota is planning to take on more than just a few extra pounds this season.
Oregon’s soft-spoken quarterback, who bulked up with 12 pounds of muscle over the summer, says he’s ready to break out and become a more vocal leader of the Ducks in his sophomore year.
“I have really high expectations for myself as well as this team,” Mariota said. “So I’m going to really push myself as a leader to help these guys — as well as myself — to get where we want to go.”
He’s already got an impressive skillset. Last season as a redshirt freshman, Mariota, a graduate of St. Louis (Oahu), set the team’s single-season record with 38 touchdowns (32 passing, 5 rushing, 1 receiving), surpassing the previous mark of 36 held by Darron Thomas (2011) and Akili Smith (1998).
The first freshman named to the Pac-12’s all-conference first team in 23 years, Mariota passed for 2,677 yards while completing a school-record 68.5 percent of his passes. He had 3,429 yards of total offense, second only to Smith’s 3,947 in 1998.
Several times last season Mariota didn’t even play for an entire game because the Ducks had built a sizeable lead. Oregon averaged 49.6 points per game compared to 21.6 for opponents.
“As far as ratio and numbers, this guy is the best quarterback in the country,” first-year head coach Mark Helfrich said. “But he doesn’t care how many passing yards he has. He cares what it says before and after the hyphen in the team record, and that’s how we operate.”
Oregon finished 12-1 last season and beat Kansas State in the Fiesta Bowl, coming in at No. 2 in the final AP rankings. Coach Chip Kelly departed for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in the offseason but the Ducks aren’t expected to experience any drop-off under Helfrich, the team’s former offensive coordinator.
There has been talk that Mariota will take to the air a little bit more under Scott Frost, the former Nebraska quarterback who was promoted to offensive coordinator when Helfrich became head coach.
“I’m down to throw the ball more,” Mariota said. “But whatever coach Frost and coach Helfrich develop as a game plan, we’ll be ready to execute it. If one week we throw the ball a little more, or another week the guys run the ball more, it’s up to the coaches. And I’m looking forward to it.”
Senior receiver Josh Huff said Mariota’s arm has gotten stronger.
“I’m excited to see what he does this season and how far he can take us,” Huff said.
Mariota hails from Hawaii, which may explain his mellow demeanor. As a senior at St. Louis High School in Honolulu, he threw for 32 touchdowns and led the Crusaders to an 11-1 record and the state title. He was widely considered one of the state’s best quarterback prospects since Tommy Chang.
He was on the practice squad in 2011 when the Ducks finished the season with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin and Darron Thomas was at quarterback. Thomas declared early for the NFL draft and many assumed the starter’s job would be passed on to Bryan Bennett, his backup.
But Mariota piqued the interest of fans during Oregon’s annual spring game in 2012 when he threw for 202 yards and a touchdown, and rushed for two additional scores. Because Kelly closed practices, it was uncertain until late last fall who would be Oregon’s new starter.
Mariota won the competition. Bennett, who appeared in 10 games last season as Mariota’s backup, transferred in January to Southeastern Louisiana.
Because of his freshman success, Mariota has drawn some inevitable comparisons to Johnny Manziel, who verbally committed to Oregon in high school but eventually decided to go to Texas A&M.
Manziel set an SEC record with 5,116 yards of total offense last season and became the first freshman ever to win the Heisman Trophy, leading the Aggies to their first 11-win season since 1998 and a Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma. But he’s had a rocky offseason and is currently under an NCAA investigation over whether he was paid for signing hundreds of autographs last January.
Numbers-wise, Mariota had more touchdown passes and fewer interceptions than Manziel, who rushed for more yards and had more scoring runs. Personality-wise, Mariota eschews the spotlight and rarely makes waves — except when necessary. Last season when there was some on-field trash talking with the rival Washington Huskies, he jumped right into the fray.
But he left team leadership to seniors like Kenjon Barner and Michael Clay, who have since gone on to the NFL.
Mariota knows it’s his turn now. And he’ll do it his way.
“I’m really working on — not being a rah-rah guy — but being that presence for guys to come up and say, ‘I felt I did this wrong, what’s your take on it?’” Mariota said. “I feel like I’ve done a good job with that. I’m working on it. It’s still a process. But that’s something I’m really putting on myself, to be a leader from that standpoint.”