NCF Nation: Hroniss Grasu

Humble Alamo Bowl win a must for Ducks

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
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From a public relations standpoint, Oregon lost too many days in 2013.

From former tight end Colt Lyerla leaving the team and his subsequent drug-related arrest to high-profile players making verbal miscues -- and of course the world’s most watched snowball fight -- the Ducks had more drama than their first-year coach probably would have preferred. A bad November on the field didn’t help, either.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesCoach Mark Helfrich and the Ducks could get to 11 wins with a victory over Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl.
So it was no surprise that after a disappointing bowl placement -- disappointing in the fact that it’s not a BCS bowl game -- Oregon had two of its most respected and well-spoken ambassadors handle the talking.

In the first five minutes of chatting with the media following Sunday’s bowl selection, quarterback Marcus Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu -- both who have decided to pass up the NFL for one more season -- couldn’t work in the words “honor” and “blessed” enough when talking about their spot in the Valero Alamo Bowl against Texas.

Maybe that’s how they really feel. Maybe it’s not. But from here on out, as the Ducks look to rehab their image, the message has to be one of sheer elation and excitement to be playing in a bowl game. Any bowl game.

“This season has been a blessing and an honor to be able to play for such a great team,” Grasu said. “It’s been a lot of fun. A couple of things didn’t go our way but there is no one to blame for that but ourselves. We wouldn’t be in this position if we didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot. But it happened. You have to move on. Now we have to worry about what we can control and that’s getting better. Going through finals and then preparing to play Texas in the Alamo Bowl, which is a big honor to play in. That’s all we can control right now.”

Another word they both used a lot was “opportunity.” That’s the key.

This is a big opportunity for Oregon. It’s an opportunity to get coach Mark Helfrich his first bowl victory and reach the 11-win mark, something Chip Kelly didn’t do in his first year. It’s an opportunity to show the recruits that the month of November was simply a hiccup and Oregon football isn’t going anywhere. It’s an opportunity to show the rest of college football that Oregon has neither been exposed nor is on a downward trend.

“It was tough and it is unfortunate,” Mariota said. “But we put ourselves in this predicament. We didn’t give ourselves a lot of room. We had the opportunity. But we’re blessed and it’s a great opportunity and we’re looking forward to it … I think for the most part guys are going to be exited. We have a lot of guys from Texas. A lot of guys that haven’t been to Texas. It’s going to be an awesome, awesome venue. We’re playing one of the most traditional programs in the country.”

Almost every college football fan in the country -- yes, even a few in Oklahoma -- wanted to see Alabama-Oregon in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Even if it weren’t for a national championship, it’s still a dream matchup that has been speculated on for years. But geography, travel and the fact that the SEC and Big 12 have a schedule alliance coming were all contributing factors to the Ducks being on the outside -- despite only losing to Pac-12 champion Stanford and the nation’s best running back in Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. That those losses came in November magnifies their impact.

If there is disappointment in the ranks, and there has to be, now isn’t the time to let it show. Now is the time to exude confidence and humility at the opportunity placed before them. Now is the time for Mariota, who said he hopes to be 100 percent for the bowl game, to go out and show why he deserved to be in New York as a Heisman finalist. He could also start off his 2014 campaign with a bang.

“I don’t think anyone is disappointed,” Grasu said. “It’s an honor to play in this bowl game against Texas. Getting a bowl win in the Alamo Bowl against Texas would a big momentum boost in the offseason and getting ready for next season. It’s really exciting. We have a lot of guys coming back, but we can’t look to next season because we’re preparing to play Texas.”

Oregon’s reputation as an elite program, combined with a bowl win, likely gets them into single digits in the final rankings. Mariota’s return makes them a preseason top-10 team in 2014. There will be many, many more days to win. And it has to start on Dec. 30.

Preferably, quietly.

After a trying second half of the season, Christmas came early for Oregon coach Mark Helfrich when quarterback Marcus Mariota announced Tuesday that he would return for his redshirt junior season instead of entering the NFL draft, in which he almost certainly would have been an early first-round selection.

As a stocking stuffer, two-time first-team All-Pac-12 center Hroniss Grasu also announced he will return. Goducks.com, the school’s athletics website, announced the news for both.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Mariota
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Mariota will return to Oregon next season as a Heisman Trophy favorite.
While the Ducks probably are going to say goodbye to receiver De'Anthony Thomas and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who have yet to announce their intentions, Mariota's decision does make one thing clear: Oregon will be the favorite to win the Pac-12 in 2014, the first year of the four-team College Football Playoff.

Mariota, a first-team All-Pac-12 selection for a second consecutive year, will be the preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy as he captains an offense that looks like it will welcome back eight starters, a calculation that doesn't include DAT or RB Byron Marshall, the Ducks leading rusher.

While the Ducks' defense will take a few hits, Helfrich's second team appears stacked and ready for a potential bounce-back season. North Division rival Stanford will be replacing a number of key stars on both sides of the ball, including eight players who earned first- or second-team All-Pac-12 honors.

Mariota completed 227 of 360 attempts for 3,412 yards with 30 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 582 yards and nine touchdowns this season. He set a Pac-12 record from the end of last season into this year by attempting 353 passes without an interception. He ranks second in the nation in ESPN.com Stats & Information's Total QBR.

Of course, a knee injury suffered against UCLA on Oct. 26 hampered him over the second half of the season, most notably in the Ducks' first loss at Stanford. Still, the Ducks "down" year produced a 10-2 record, a sixth consecutive 10-win season with a bowl game left to play.

Mariota's return means that as many as 10 conference teams could welcome back their 2013 starting quarterback. We still await word from UCLA's Brett Hundley and Oregon State's Sean Mannion on whether they will enter the NFL draft. The return of Utah's Travis Wilson is up in the air due to health issues.

Only Arizona and Washington started seniors at QB this year.

The dual return of Mariota and Grasu means the brains of the Ducks' offense will be back in 2014. Grasu, perhaps the nation's top center, should have a mastery of the Ducks' offensive line calls, while Mariota figures to own an Andrew Luck-like knowledge of the nuances of the Ducks' offense as a third-year starter.

That's a huge advantage heading into 2014.

Further, their return is a vote of confidence in Helfrich. If one or the other didn't believe in the Ducks' first-year coach, they almost certainly would have moved on.

The only Ducks who might be unhappy with Mariota's decision are backup QBs Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues, who will be redshirt sophomores next season. They probably expected to be in a hotly contested competition for the starting job this spring. That said, they might benefit from another year of seasoning playing behind a future high NFL draft choice.

Of course, sometimes the celebrated return of a QB doesn't always work out (see: USC's Matt Barkley in 2012). Fans and NFL scouts will expect Mariota to be even better next fall. Comparable numbers might be viewed as a sign of his plateauing.

But that's a potentiality that isn't worth fretting over today.

Oregon fans were frustrated when the program lost two of its final four games and fell out of the national title race. Here's a guess that those frowns just turned upside down.

Another preseason list. But this one is different.

Athlon has released its preseason All-America team and 22 Pac-12 players were tapped for four teams at 23 spots, second only to the SEC's 25. However, the Pac-12 actually leads all of college football with eight players on the first-team (it probably should be nine, but Anthony Barr was relegated to the second team). The SEC is second with seven.

Here are the Pac-12 players selected:

First-Team Offense
First-Team Defense
Second-Team Offense
Second-Team Defense
Second-Team Specialists
Third-Team Offense
Third-Team Defense
Fourth-Team Offense
Fourth-Team Defense
Thoughts: As always, subjective lists are going to be debatable. For the most part, I think Athlon hit on almost all of the Pac-12 players who should be hit in the preseason. It's nice to see Su'a-Filo get some recognition because I think it's warranted and he'll prove worthy of it by year's end. Same with Sankey and Coyle. Cooks is a pleasant surprise. While I think he certainly has the potential to be on this list, we really need to see someone else step up opposite him to free him up the way Markus Wheaton did last year.

As noted above, I'd have Barr on my first team. But one glaring omission is Stanford safety Jordan Richards. I get Ed Reynolds being on the first team -- that seems to be a popular consensus among the preseason lists. But no Richards at all is a big miss. My guess is both will end up splitting AA honors at the end of the year because both are that good. I just have a hard time believing there are seven other safeties better than Richards.

I didn't mind Bailey on the list. And I think the move back to the secondary is going to be huge for him and for the Trojans. But he's taken some time off from the position and might need a readjustment period. And for that reason, I think second team is too high for him -- especially when Richards is off the board.

I think the same Reynolds/Richards argument can be made for Oregon's Terrance Mitchell (who could be on one of these teams as well) and Ekpre-Olomu, who certainly benefited from having a lockdown corner on the opposite side. As a result, his numbers ballooned. While Richards/Reynolds are the best safety duo in the league (probably the country), the Mitchell/Ekpre-Olomu tandem makes up the best cornerback duo in the league (probably the country).

Finally, I understand the rationale for not having Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota one one of the four teams. Heck, Teddy Bridgewater -- perceived to be the top quarterback in the country by many -- didn't make the list. But I think when all is said and done, Mariota will get All-America honors because his numbers will be too good to overlook. He's shown to be a true dual-threat with precision passing and pretty darn good running skills.

Pac-12 All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
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Ladies and gentlemen, a round of applause for your 2012 Pac-12 All-Bowl team.

OFFENSE

QB: Taylor Kelly, Arizona State -- 17-of-19, 267 yards with four touchdowns and no picks. Outstanding performance.

RB: Bishop Sankey, Washington -- The lone player from a losing team on the all-bowl squad, but he was too good to ignore -- 30 carries for 205 yards and a touchdown.

RB: Marion Grice, Arizona State -- With a heavy heart, he earned offensive MVP by piling up 159 yards on just 14 carries for a robust 11.4-yard average. He also had a pair of rushing touchdowns in ASU's blowout win.

WR: Austin Hill, Arizona -- His 175 yards broke an Arizona record for receiving yards in a bowl game and his two touchdowns matched a school high.

[+] EnlargeArizona State's Rashad Ross
Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY SportsRashad Ross had four catches for 139 yards and three touchdowns against Navy.
WR: Rashad Ross, Arizona State -- Had a huge day with four catches for 139 yards and three touchdowns.

TE: Colt Lyerla, Oregon -- He's not here for his three catches and 52 yards. He's here because those three catches for 52 yards changed the way Kansas State played defense and it opened everything up for the Ducks.

OL: David Yankey, Stanford -- The Morris Trophy winner helped keep quarterback Kevin Hogan sack-free and QB hit-free.

OL: Kyle Quinn, Arizona -- Paved the way for Carey's record-setting performance.

OL: Hroniss Grasu, Oregon -- Kept a good Kansas State front at bay and delivered a knockout block on De'Anthony Thomas' touchdown reception.

OL: Evan Finkenberg, Arizona State -- Key player in Marion Grice's big day.

OL: Kyle Long, Oregon -- Helped limit Kansas State's aggressive front to just one sack.

K: Jordan Williamson, Stanford -- Shook off the Fiesta cobwebs and calmly drilled both field goal attempts, including a 47-yarder. His six points were the difference in the 20-14 outcome.

DEFENSE

DL: Ben Gardner, Stanford -- Fourth-and-goal at the 1. James White, prepare to meet the mullet.

DL: Will Sutton, Arizona State -- Defensive MVP of Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Hungry for more next season.

DL: Carl Bradford, Arizona State -- Three tackles for a loss, plus a sack, make him the perfect complement to Sutton.

LB: Kiko Alonso, Oregon -- Run blitzed the Wildcats all night and was as effective as he was punishing.

LB: Michael Clay, Oregon -- Your defensive MVP of the Fiesta Bowl had nine tackles, two for a loss, plus a sack. He was prolific.

LB: A.J. Tarpley, Stanford -- The leading tackler in the Rose Bowl helped the Cardinal to a second-half shutout.

LB: Marquis Flowers, Arizona -- The defensive MVP of the New Mexico Bowl posted 10 tackles, one for a loss, and an interception. He also recovered the onside kick that sparked Arizona's comeback.

DB: Jordan Richards, Stanford -- Seven tackles, two tackles for a loss, a sack and one very, very nasty (yet clean) hit.

DB: Erick Dargan, Oregon -- Two picks off a Heisman Trophy finalist is two picks off a Heisman Trophy finalist -- whether it's the end of the half or end of the game. He also had eight tackles, second only to Clay.

DB: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, Oregon -- Posted five tackles and a pass breakup. Kansas State challenged him. He responded.

DB: Shaquille Richardson, Arizona -- Nabbed his first interception of the season at the Arizona 2-yard line and returned it 27 yards. That kicked off a nine-play, 71-yard touchdown drive for the Wildcats.

KR: De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon -- DAT did what DAT does. And he did it great.
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The overwhelming sentiment at the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl is the game will be Chip Kelly's last as the Oregon head coach before he fills one of the seven new NFL vacancies. If that is so, the equally overwhelming sentiment is that offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will step into Kelly's spot atop the program.

Kelly, clearly anticipating the NFL questions, has fought off all inquires on the matter by saying he is only focused on the Fiesta Bowl on Thursday. He has emphasized that the NFL talk is not a distraction to him or his team, and that he and his players have not addressed it.

His players have been on message, too.

[+] EnlargeMark Helfrich
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/USA TODAY SportsMark Helfrich was a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado, before joining Oregon in 2009.
Said linebacker Michael Clay: "He doesn't talk about it. No body talks about it."

And offensive lineman Kyle Long: "There isn't really a lot of talk about that. You can control what you can control. What we can control is our attitude, our effort and our preparation."

And quarterback Marcus Mariota: "Whatever happens, happens. Coach Kelly will make a decision that is best suited for him. Whatever he does, this team will support him."

And center Hroniss Grasu: "He's our head coach right now. That's the only way I can look at it. I will play for whoever is our head coach right now. Right now, it's Coach Kelly. I won't look too far ahead."

As for Helfrich, he also is staking out a "wait-and-see" position: "I don't think [Kelly leaving for the NFL is] a slam-dunk like everyone else does. I hope he stays at Oregon forever," he said.

It's important to note there have been no concrete reports of contact with NFL teams, and Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said he's received no courtesy calls from an interested NFL team. It's plausible -- and very, very Chip Kelly -- that Kelly's non-denials emerge from his enjoyment in making the media awkwardly tap dance in front of him.

Still, if Kelly's departure is just days away, it is reasonable to get an early measure of Helfrich, who has been a quarterback coach at Boise State, Arizona State and Colorado -- he was the Buffs' offensive coordinator, too -- before Kelly hired him in 2009.

"He's really smart, really intelligent," Kelly said of why he made Helfrich his first offensive coordinator. "He brought a different perspective to our staff, because he had a different background. He wasn't a spread guy. I wanted to bring someone in who wasn't going to tell us what we already knew."

When asked what advice he'd give to Helfrich if he became a head coach, Kelly said he'd give him the same advice Rich Brooks gave Mike Bellotti and Bellotti gave him: "Be yourself. You can't be someone else."

Which is interesting in itself, because Helfrich is different than Kelly. Very different.

"Coach Kelly is the yin and he's the yang," Ducks senior running back Kenjon Barner said. "Coach Kelly is on you. He knows what he wants and he's going to get it out of you. Coach Helf is kind of that guy who brings you along smoothly, rather than rough. Good cop, bad cop. Sometimes they switch roles."

That said, continuity is a big reason to promote Helfrich. Oregon has a team culture, system of practicing and schemes on both sides of the ball that have been working fabulously over the past four years with Kelly. Helfrich wouldn't be expected to change much. Further, he'd likely be able to retain some of the Ducks' staff because Kelly probably will need to hire veteran NFL coaches to offset his lack of professional experience.

Still, Helfrich, as Kelly would advise, is unlikely to transform into a Kelly clone. He's worked with a number of successful coaches, so he'd likely put his own stamp on existing systems.

"You take a little bit of everybody with you," Helfrich said. "I've learned a ton from Chip."

While some players seemed -- for obvious reasons -- uncomfortable with the topic, there was a strong undercurrent of support for Helfrich, and not just with offensive players.

"He's a great guy and knows what he's doing," linebacker Michael Clay said. "Everyone respects him on the team and around the league. I think he'd do a great job as a head coach."

Helfrich is certain to be a head coach at some point. The big question to be answered after the Fiesta Bowl is whether that ascension is just days away.

ESPN.com All-Pac-12 team

December, 10, 2012
12/10/12
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It wasn't easy putting together an All-Pac-12 team for 2012. Lots of tough choices, particularly at running back, where four guys were deserving.

It was difficult to leave off UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Stanford's Stepfan Taylor. As a tandem, they are better than just about any other conference's first-team backs.

Oregon, the highest-ranked Pac-12 team at season's end, led the way with six players. UCLA and Stanford, which played for the Pac-12 title, had four each. Oregon State had three. California, Colorado and Washington were shut out.

Offense
QB Marcus Mariota, RFr., Oregon
RB Ka'Deem Carey, So., Arizona
RB Kenjon Barner, Sr., Oregon
WR Marqise Lee, So., USC
WR Markus Wheaton, Sr., Oregon State
TE Zach Ertz, Jr., Stanford
OL Khaled Holmes, Sr., USC
OL David Yankey, Jr., Stanford
OL Hroniss Grasu, So., Oregon
OL Xavier Su'a-Filo, So., UCLA
OL Jeff Baca, Sr., UCLA
K Andrew Furney, Jr., Washington State
KR Reggie Dunn, Sr., Utah

Defense
DE Dion Jordan, Sr., Oregon
DT Star Lotulelei, Sr., Utah
DT Will Sutton, Jr., Arizona State
DE Scott Crichton, So., Oregon State
OLB Anthony Barr, Jr., UCLA
ILB Michael Clay, Sr., Oregon
OLB Chase Thomas, Sr., Stanford
CB Jordan Poyer, Sr., Oregon State
CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, So., Oregon
S Ed Reynolds, So., Stanford
S Deone Bucannon, Jr., Washington State
P Jeff Locke, Sr., UCLA

Who has brains coming back?

April, 3, 2012
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Recognition is so important for an offense. Think Andrew Luck -- or Peyton Manning -- wildly gesticulating at the line of scrimmage.

Or, for that matter, Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas doing the same thing.

That was something that stuck with me after I chatted with Oregon sophomore center Hroniss Grasu a couple of weeks ago. We were talking about how he improved at making line calls during the 2011 season, but he went out of his way to note how good Thomas was at helping out, at identifying last-second changes a defense made that perhaps hinted at its ill intentions.

The point: Centers and quarterbacks are the brains of an offense. The center typically makes the calls at the line of scrimmage that make sure everyone is accounted for. And quarterbacks communicate to both the skill players and the line about check and audibles.

The QB and center work in tandem. They need to be in sync. And having smart, experienced signal-callers and centers is a big deal for an offense. It means an offense can go to the line with more options, and it can check into the right option more often than not. That breeds confidence, both among players and with their coaches.

So which Pac-12 teams are experienced at QB and center? Who has both back, one back or neither?

Thanks for asking.

Arizona: Center
Skinny
: While Nick Foles was the Wildcats' quarterback last year, Matt Scott has started five games, so the offense is not in inexperienced hands. Senior center Kyle Quinn did a solid job in 2011, earning honorable mention All-Pac-12 honors. On the downside, the Wildcats are installing a new offense with coach Rich Rodriguez, so past experience isn't as helpful.

Arizona State: Neither
Skinny:
QB Brock Osweiler is gone as is center Garth Gerhart. Kody Koebensky likely takes over at center, while the quarterback competition continues to be wide-open. Of course, the Sun Devils are installing a new offense under new coach Todd Graham, so being green isn't as much of an issue.

California: Both
Skinny
: QB Zach Maynard should be much more in control as a second-year starter. While center Dominic Galas is back, he's sitting out spring due to a shoulder injury, and it appears he will switch over to guard. Galas, some of you Bears fans might recall, did have some issues with shotgun snaps last year. Chris Adcock or Mark Brazinski could end up winning the job.

Colorado: Center
Skinny
: Tyler Hansen is almost certainly going to be replaced at quarterback by Texas transfer Connor Wood, a sophomore with no game experience. It should help Wood, however, to have junior Gus Handler back making the line calls. Daniel Munyer, who's slated to start at guard, also has starting experience at center.

Oregon: Center
Skinny: Center
Grasu's first start as a redshirt freshman was against LSU's beastly defensive front. That was a baptism by fire, but he consistently improved throughout the season. QB Bryan Bennett has some experience, including one start, but he will be challenged this spring by redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota.

Oregon State: QB
Skinny
: Sean Mannion is back at QB, but center Grant Johnson is gone. The frontrunner to win that job is sophomore Roman Sapolu. The Beavers have injury issues on the line this spring, and that likely will slow down the unit's -- and Sapolu's -- development.

Stanford: Center
Skinny
: You might have heard that Andrew Luck is gone. Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes look like the favorites to replace him, but neither has significant experience. Senior Sam Schwartzstein did a fine job stepping into Chase Beeler's shoes in 2011, but life was, naturally, easier with Luck at QB. More will fall on Schwartzstein in 2012.

UCLA: QB
Skinny
: The Bruins have two quarterbacks with significant starting experience back: Kevin Prince and Richard Brehaut. But redshirt freshman Brett Hundley might end up winning the job. All three are learning a new offense this spring under new coach Jim Mora and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Sophomore Jacob Brendel -- or perhaps junior Greg Capella, who mostly started at guard last year -- are the frontrunners to replace Kai Maiava at center.

USC: Both
Skinny
: You've maybe heard of Trojans QB Matt Barkley and his receivers, Robert Woods/Marqise Lee, being the best pass-catch trio in the nation. Well, Barkley and senior center Khaled Holmes are the perhaps the best QB-center combination in the nation. Holmes was second-team All-Pac-12 in 2011, and he's probably the best center in the conference.

Utah: Both
Skinny
: Junior Jordan Wynn, a three-year starter, only needs to stay healthy for the Utes to get at least solid QB play. Center Tevita Stevens is solid, but he will be breaking in a pair of new OTs.

Washington: Both
Skinny
: Junior QB Keith Price was a revelation last year as a first-year starter, far eclipsing the production of his celebrated predecessor, Jake Locker. Senior center Drew Schaefer is a 30-game starter. So this is a strong combo for the Huskies.

Washington State: Both
Skinny
: Jeff Tuel feels like a decided frontrunner to retain his starting job at QB, while junior Matt Goetz returns at center. A junior-college transfer in 2011, he started the final nine games of 2011. A year of seasoning -- and in the weight room -- should help Goetz in 2012.

Competition on: Bennett vs. Mariota

April, 2, 2012
4/02/12
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Bennett-MariotaGetty Images/AP PhotoOregon quarterbacks Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota will battle for the starting job this spring.
EUGENE, Ore. -- While Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas' decision to enter the NFL draft a year early shocked many outside the football program, it didn't surprise many of those close to him, including his fellow Ducks quarterbacks. Thomas had brought up the possibility a number of times throughout the year, so backup Bryan Bennett and talented true freshman Marcus Mariota knew he was eyeballing a potential departure.

Though the news was greeted with more than a few gasps, many Ducks fans didn't spice their surprise with disappointment. Some had felt that Bennett -- despite Thomas' record-setting numbers -- was a better quarterback, or at least that he had more upside. They had seen what he'd done in limited action in 2011, coming off the bench in a big win over Arizona State and a start at Colorado.

Inside the program, not only was it not a big surprise, it also wasn't viewed as a perfunctory passing of the torch. There was a mystery man, an X factor, with whom fans and media weren't terribly familiar because Oregon has shut down access to practices: true freshman Marcus Mariota.

Mariota, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder out of St. Louis High School in Honolulu, had shown enough in one impressive redshirt year to be viewed by his coaches and teammates as a legitimate threat to win the job.

"When DT left, I told Brian, 'You got to work for it. Marcus Mariota is a very good quarterback,'" said center Hroniss Grasu, Bennett's roommate and good friend. "It's going to be a great competition."

What you keep hearing when you ask players and coaches about Bennett and Mariota is that they are notably similar. Both are tall and fairly thin -- Bennett is 6-3, 205 pounds. Both are athletic and comfortable running an option attack. Both are capable passers. Both have low-key personalities.

"We feel real confident as a staff in our quarterback situation," said coach Chip Kelly, whose Ducks begin spring practices Tuesday. "They just haven't played significant amounts. I'm real confident in whoever ends up out of those guys pulling the trigger that we'll have a pretty good one."

There's good reason for that. Since Kelly arrived as the Ducks' offensive coordinator in 2007, Oregon has been good to outstanding at the position. He transformed Dennis Dixon from a guy who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2006 to a leading Heisman Trophy candidate before he got hurt. He made Jeremiah Masoli, an unknown summer junior college transfer, into a swashbuckling, dual-threat force. And under his tutelage, Thomas ended up throwing more TD passes than any previous Ducks QB.

Kelly insists he has no preconceptions: "Our program is founded on competition," he said. Of course, many coaches throw the "competition" coaching platitude around. What actually happens on the depth chart demonstrates that most still favor seniority, particularly at QB. Coaches believe in the value of experience and they are more comfortable with players with whom they've built up years of familiarity. To win a job, a younger player must decisively demonstrate superiority.

But Kelly has shown he's not like that, and we need look no further than the last quarterback competition in Eugene between senior Nate Costa and Thomas, then a sophomore.

Costa was the feel-good story after Masoli's ugly departure. He was the one-time spread-option prodigy who'd been done in by bad knees, but heading into 2010 spring practices he was again healthy and ready to lead the Ducks with his moxie and still substantial skills. Thomas was a skinny guy from Houston with an odd throwing motion who lacked Costa's polish.

Just about everyone thought Costa would win the job, perhaps even by the end of spring practices. But a funny thing happened: Thomas was announced as the starter in late August.

Bennett was a true freshman observer of that competition, at least the fall camp portion. And, just as Thomas didn't surprise him when he opted to leave for the NFL, he also didn't surprise Bennett when he won the job.

"At first, I saw Nate as the older, senior, who kind of took control more," Bennett said. "I think it could have gone either way, but I wasn't too surprised. I thought it kind of started to lean towards Darron at the end."

Fair to say Bennett knows he can't expect his limited experience -- 369 yards passing, six touchdowns, no interceptions -- to give him a substantial advantage, at least not as baubles that will impress Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. But that experience could become a foundation or launching point that helps Bennett develop faster, which could provide a competitive advantage. The game should be slower to him than to Mariota. He knows how it feels when the lights are on for real, and how his teammates and coaches react. He knows how to prepare as a starter. And he saw how Thomas won the job over Costa.

"Since Darron left, I have taken it on myself to present myself as a leader of this team," Bennett said. "I would like to be the starting quarterback of this team. In my mind, I'm going to continue to tell myself that I need to get better and worry about the things I can control. It could come down neck-and-neck. It could be decided in spring ball. I really don't know. It's more a competition with myself, because I can control what I do. I can't control what [Mariota] does."

When fellow Ducks talk about Mariota, they talk about how quickly he's picked up the offense. Mariota, in a revealing moment of humility that supports that very point, said it took him "a week" -- a whole week! -- to feel comfortable running the offense in fall camp his freshman year.

"I feel we are going in evenly," Mariota said. "Bryan is a very good player. He's been in this system for a while now. I'm just going to take it day by day. We both are. And whoever wins, we'll be rooting for each other."

Mariota adds: "If Bryan wins the job, I will be behind him 100 percent. This is a team thing."

This "team" thing has changed at Oregon. Three years ago, the Ducks starting QB was only of local, perhaps regional interest. After three consecutive conference titles, it's now a position of national import. The last three Ducks QBs have been in Rose Bowl and national title hunts.

The expectations aren't any lower in 2012, even with Thomas' surprising/not-so-surprising decision.

"I know whoever the quarterback is, he will do a great job," Grasu said. "Hopefully even better than last season. I know last season was a great season, but I think with the team we've got coming back everywhere else, we can be very successful."

The 2011 Pac-12 All-Bowl team

January, 13, 2012
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Our All-Pac-12 bowl team has two quarterbacks and a position we made up. And it wasn't easy to pick the defense, because many of the conference defenses underwhelmed during a 2-5 bowl run.

[+] EnlargeKeith Price
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireEven Andrew Luck would admire Washington QB Keith Price's seven-touchdown effort in the Alamo Bowl.
Offense
QB Andrew Luck, Stanford
: Luck completed 27 of 31 passes for 347 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State.
QB II Keith Price, Washington: It's impossible to leave Price or Luck out. Price completed 23 of 37 passes for 438 yards with four TDs and zero interceptions in the Alamo Bowl loss to Baylor. He also rushed for 39 yards and three scores. Those numbers typically would eclipse what Luck did, but Baylor might have the worst defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
RB LaMichael James, Oregon: James rushed for 159 yards on 25 carries with a TD in the Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin.
RB Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: Taylor rushed for 177 yards on 37 carries with two touchdowns in the Fiesta Bowl.
WR Gerell Robinson, Arizona State: Robinson caught 13 passes for 241 yards with a TD in the Las Vegas Bowl loss to Boise State.
WR Lavasier Tuinei, Oregon: Tuinei caught eight passes for 158 yards and two scores in the Rose Bowl victory.
TE Zach Ertz, Stanford: Ertz caught four passes for 38 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinal's Rose Bowl loss.
OL David DeCastro, Stanford: The unanimous All-American dominated Oklahoma State's D-linemen in the Fiesta Bowl. The Cardinal rushed for 243 yards.
OL Mark Asper, Oregon: Asper is the senior cornerstone of a line that led the way for 345 yards rushing in the Ducks' Rose Bowl victory.
OL Tony Bergstrom, Utah: The senior tackle helped RB John White gain 115 tough yards against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
OL Hroniss Grasu, Oregon: The Ducks freshman center made all the right line calls against Wisconsin.
OL Senio Kelemete, Washington: The Huskies gained 620 yards and didn't allow a sack in the loss to Baylor.
Freak: Our special position for De'Anthony Thomas, who scored TDs on runs of 91 and 64 yards in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin. The Black Mamba also caught four passes for 34 yards and returned five kickoffs for 125 yards.

K: Giorgio Tavecchio, California: Tavecchio capped a strong senior season with a 47-yard field goal in the Holiday Bowl loss to Texas.
RET: Rashad Ross, Arizona State: Ross returned the third-quarter kickoff 98 yards for a TD against Boise State in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Defense
DL Josh Shirley, Washington
: While it's difficult to recognize anyone from the Huskies defense against Baylor, Shirley did sack Robert Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner, three times.
DL Trevor Guyton, California: Guyton had five tackles, with two coming for losses, and a sack in the Bears' loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
DL Star Lotulelei, Utah: The Utes DT had six tackles and a fumble recovery and generally blew up the middle of the Georgia Tech line in the Utes' Sun Bowl victory. He was named Most Valuable Lineman.
LB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA: Zumwalt had 10 tackles, including two for a loss, and an interception in the Bruins' loss to Illinois in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
LB Kiko Alonso, Oregon: The Ducks LB had five tackles, including 2.5 for a loss, with a sack and a key interception in the Ducks' Rose Bowl win. He was named Defensive MVP.
LB Michael Clay, Oregon: The Ducks LB had 13 tackles, including two for a loss, and a critical fumble recovery in the Rose Bowl victory.
LB Mychal Kendricks, California: Kendricks had 10 tackles, including 1.5 for losses, in the Bears' loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
DB Terrance Mitchell, Oregon: Mitchell had five tackles in the Rose Bowl, but his most important contribution was forcing a Wisconsin fumble on the Ducks 27-yard line with four minutes left in the game. Perhaps even more important than that, he inspired coach Chip Kelly to jump up and down in a wonderful -- and slightly goofy -- show of spontaneous emotion (search YouTube for "Chip Kelly jumping").
DB Clint Floyd, Arizona State: Floyd had seven tackles -- two for a loss -- and an interception in the Sun Devils' loss to Boise State.
DB John Boyett, Oregon: Boyett had a bowl-high 17 tackles and half a sack in the Ducks' win over Wisconsin.
DB Marc Anthony, California: Anthony had four tackles, one coming for a loss, and two pass breakups against Texas.

P Sean Sellwood, Utah: Sellwood averaged 49.5 yards on eight punts against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl.
Oregon tailback LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas are the two most prominent offensive stars in the Pac-12 not named Luck. But one question that the Ducks must answer early in their quest for a third consecutive conference championship is whether the offensive line will provide the time and space for the backfield to do what it has proven it can do.

“We lost three starters, three guys who had over 100 starts,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “That’s a big concern.”

[+] EnlargeMark Asper
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesThe Ducks will lean on Mark Asper, who is one of the returning starters along the offensive line.
Center Jordan Holmes and left tackle Bo Thran both made all-conference. Along with right guard C.E. Kaiser, the three fifth-year seniors used their experience together and their maturity to overcome whatever deficiencies they had. That’s the trick in college football -- time can trump talent on an offensive line.

“All those guys led by example,” Kelly said. “Those kids were great students. Jordan Holmes was a great role model in every aspect. It was easy for Jordan Holmes to stand up and say, ‘This is how we do it,’ because he did it that way.”

That leaves fifth-year senior Mark Asper, a 25-year-old husband and father, fourth-year junior left guard Carson York, and, according to Kelly, a third returning starter in redshirt senior Darrion Weems. He started four games at left tackle and two at right tackle. Kelly pretty much believes that offensive lines, like basketball teams, should have a sixth man.

“Steve [Greatwood, the offensive line coach] would always rotate guys in with our offensive line,” Kelly said, “so even though we lost three, we got three starters coming back. Mathematically, people say how do you do that? Because those guys share snaps.”

The biggest hole may be at center, where redshirt sophomore Karrington Armstrong and redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu split time. Grasu “is a kid we really like,” Kelly said. However, the 19-year-old, at 6-foot-3, 278 pounds, may be a milkshake or two short of being an every-down player.

At right guard likely will be veteran Ramsen Golpashin, “a fifth-year kid who has worked really hard for us and has put himself in a position where he’s going to play a little bit for us,” Kelly said. The leader for the sixth man is Ryan Clanton, “a JC kid who has shown up a little bit and is playing hard, doing things that, if we can keep him healthy, will put us in a good situation.”

The bottom line, however, is that if Oregon wants an offense as prolific as last year’s, the Ducks can’t afford early-season injuries up front. Every coach has to deal with replacing players. But Kelly has to replace them at the position that depends the most on experience.

“There are still going to be two or three kids in the offensive line that haven’t really played significant snaps for us,” he said. “They’re going to have to play significant snaps for us this year. We’ll see how they do.”

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