- Ivan Maisel, ESPN Senior Writer
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EUGENE, Ore. -- You would think that Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota returns for his redshirt sophomore season with expectations weighing on him like lead shoulder pads. That could happen when you win the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year Award and lead your team to a 12-1 record.
You would think that Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel returns for his redshirt sophomore season struggling with the demands of matching his performance last fall. Manziel spent three months transforming from unknown to rock star, picking up the Heisman Trophy and 348,000 Twitter followers along the way.
But that's not how college football works. For players like Mariota, Manziel, Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan and UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, this season will be a big, gooey cupcake compared to the anxieties and doubts of a year ago.
Nothing that happened last season, when Mariota and the Ducks finished No. 2 in the nation, stressed the Hawaii native like spring practice a year ago. Mariota had to beat out third-year quarterback Bryan Bennett to win the starting job.
"I wasn't even sure of how I was going to do," Mariota said. "I had dreams and aspirations of doing well, but you haven't played a game in a year. They don't know how you play. And then to go out [for the spring game] and there's 46,000 people. I haven't played in front of a crowd like that in my life."
By November, he flourished before twice that many people in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, where Oregon beat USC 62-51. Well before that Saturday night, Mariota had displayed the ideal skills to run the Oregon up-tempo offense. He finished the season with 2,677 yards and 32 touchdowns passing and 752 yards and five touchdowns rushing.
"Without knowing what he was doing," Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost said.
And that's the point. Frost can't wait to see what Mariota can do in the offense now that he has moved beyond the Weekly Reader portion of the playbook.
"If I could throw like him, I wouldn't be sitting here," Frost said. "The kid can make every single throw that he needs to make on the football field and makes it look easy. And he's 6-4 and runs a 4.4. There's just not that many guys like that."
Manziel is blessed with unique physical talents as well. He's the biggest reason that Texas A&M finished 11-2 and No. 5 in its maiden season in the SEC. But it took the Aggies coaching staff a couple of games to see that Manziel's ability to adjust on the fly could take the team a long way.
"He improved as a quarterback through the season, particularly the last five or six games," coach Kevin Sumlin said in a phone interview. "You can split the season in half."
Even as Manziel dazzled down the homestretch, when he accounted for 345 yards and two touchdowns in the Aggies' 29-24 upset at No. 1 Alabama and ran and passed for 516 yards and four touchdowns in the 41-13 rout of No. 11 Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl, the Aggies coaches kept his load light. Senior center Pat Lewis made all the blocking calls.
This spring, sophomore Mike Matthews took over at center, and Manziel took over making the protection calls.
"The challenge for Johnny -- and this sounds kind of a crazy to people -- from the outset was to have a better understanding of the overall offense conceptually, instead of just lines on a piece of paper," Sumlin said. "'Why are we doing this? What are we trying to do?' To think like that; we're not just running the curl here or the curl flat. Why are we doing that? Because we're anticipating this kind of coverage in this type of situation."
If Manziel understands the why, he can make a better decision on the fly, which can't be good news for the rest of the SEC. His ability to create something out of nothing is the reason he won the Heisman.
"That's what spring football is for," Sumlin said, "so he knows how we think as coaches and we have a better understanding of how he thinks and his ability to explain, 'Well, here's what I saw.'"
The quarterbacks know their schemes better. But that knowledge accounts for only part of their increased stature within the offense. They are no longer teenagers in a locker room with 22-year-old teammates. The quarterbacks are no longer redshirt freshmen thrust into a position that demands leadership.
Mariota ceded leadership last year to guys like fifth-year senior tailback Kenjon Barner.
"Kenjon was like, 'Man, you were in eighth grade when I graduated high school,'" Mariota said. "There were always jokes like that around. I took notes from guys like Kenjon, guys like [guard] Ryan Clanton, that have been here for so long. Just try to pay attention and see what they do. It wasn't that I had to say anything. Those guys voiced it. As a freshman, I was able to just kind of watch and see. Now I am hopefully able to apply that, now that those guys are gone."
The young guns who made last season so memorable are growing up. That bodes well for the season to come.
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