Before a relatively unknown kid from Hawaii committed to Oregon, and even after he enrolled, Darron Thomas and Bryan Bennett represented the present and future for the Ducks at quarterback. And after Thomas, then a sophomore in his first year as the starter, led Oregon to the BCS championship game in the 2010 season -- a game in which Bennett served as the backup -- there was no need to look past them to find reasons for optimism.
Four years later, as both continue to pursue professional football after departing Oregon with eligibility remaining, there’s no way for either to escape their association with Marcus Mariota.
In two years as the starter, Thomas put up big numbers and led Oregon to a 23-3 record (he missed one game with an injury), but inexplicably went against the advice of just about everyone and chose to make himself available for the 2012 NFL draft. Despite throwing a school-record 66 touchdown passes, he was not viewed as a good NFL prospect.
“I took my own advice. I always thought that the best players in college football get drafted and, at the time, I thought I was one of the top players in college football,” Thomas said. “I didn’t really care about where I was going to get drafted. All I knew was that I was a quarterback that went 23-3.”
The decision was so perplexing that many came to a seemingly logical conclusion that Thomas had simply been told by the coaching staff that his starting job was not guaranteed -- or even gone -- with Mariota set to come off his redshirt. After all, they’d seen Mariota practice all season and knew what they had. However, Thomas remains adamant job security didn’t factor into his decision.
“I was just upset that the [Oregon] coaches didn’t come back and say that wasn’t the case because a lot of people in the NFL asked me if that was the case, too,” he said. “That’s kind of why I disconnected myself from Oregon because that was surely not the case, at all.”
Bennett’s aware of the speculation regarding Mariota’s perceived impact on Thomas’ departure, but doesn’t buy it, either.
“I don’t think that Darron had that in his head,” Bennett said. “We knew Marcus was a good player, for sure, but we were all competitors. That doesn’t seem like Darron to me.”
Thomas went undrafted and unsigned and has yet to try out for an NFL team. Last year, he signed with the Portland Thunder of the Arena Football League and after experiencing minimal success while adjusting to the game -- he lost the starting job early in the season -- is preparing for a second year, while holding onto his fading NFL dream.
"All I'm looking for is a tryout," he said. "Hopefully I’ll get one soon."
It’s a dream shared by Bennett, who spent the last two seasons at FCS Southeastern Louisiana, where he transferred after serving as Mariota’s backup in 2012. The Lions went 20-7 in Bennett’s two years as the starter and he was named the Southland Conference Player of the Year in 2013 and Offensive Player of the Year in 2014.
“It was a great opportunity to get the best of both worlds,” he said. “Got to experience everything at Oregon and then play every week and compete [at SLU]. At end of the day, the only thing you can ask for is a chance to compete. It was a good experience and I grew as a football player and person.”
Unlike Thomas, Bennett’s association with Mariota has somewhat of a buoying effect -- at least for perception’s sake. By most accounts, including Bennett’s, his competition with Mariota for the starting job was truly that. He was given a fair shot but ultimately lost out to a generational talent.
“It was very competitive in the spring and through fall camp,” Bennett said. “Every day was a job interview. We both made plays, we both made mistakes, we both got better. It was awesome with a guy like Marcus, who is a great player, great kid, great friend.
“There was never any hard feelings. We were both trying to get better.”
Any stigma attached to playing FCS ball doesn't apply with Bennett. When he transferred, it was necessary and expected. And when he left, Bennett kept close tabs on the Ducks.
“I’ve stayed in touch with the guys. I couldn’t watch all the games because of my own games, but I definitely sat down and watched them when I could,” he said. “I’m very happy for them to get the opportunity to play for the national championship.”
Before the Rose Bowl, Bennett, who lives in Southern California, stopped by the team hotel and visited with former teammates and coaches -- many for the first time since he left.
As the Ducks prepare for the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented By AT&T, Bennett will be in Carlsbad, California, just outside of San Diego, preparing for the NFL draft at the EXOS facility with several other draft hopefuls, including Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion. Best-case scenario, the wildly-talented Bennett could be a Day 3 draft pick, but said he’s just looking for an opportunity to be in a NFL camp with a chance to compete.
Again, he stressed, "that's all you can ask for."