By Chris Mahr
As Oregon QB Marcus Mariota prepares for a 2013 season in which the Ducks are a national title contender and he’s expected to contend for several national individual awards, his predecessor is far removed from his glory days in Eugene.
Darron Thomas — he of the school-record 33 touchdown passes in a season and 24–3 record as Oregon’s starting signal-caller — is yet to play a down in the NFL despite leaving school early for it last year. On Wednesday he signed with the largely unknown Lincoln (NE) Haymakers of the equally anonymous Champions Professional Indoor Football League (CPIFL). This comes after a short tenure with the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders in which he didn’t attempt a single pass during the 2013 season.
As rough as Thomas’ professional football odyssey sounds, he’s just the latest in a line of former Oregon QBs going back to the late 1990s to fall well short of his college accomplishments at the next level. It’s a convincing enough trend to label Ducks signal-callers as a whole as “system guys.”
It began with Akili Smith and Joey Harrington. The former put up gaudy stats as a senior in 1998 (3,763 passing yards and 34 total TD), while the latter exhibited all the hallmarks of a classic, drop-back passer in 2001 in leading the Ducks to a Fiesta Bowl victory.
Both wound up as the third overall pick in their respective NFL drafts. Both now frequently appear on lists of the biggest first-round busts in recent memory.
While those two at least showed up on draft boards prior to their less-than-stellar NFL careers, it’s been even worse for their predecessors, who NFL scouts largely ignored.
Jason Fife, Kellen Clemens, Dennis Dixon, Jeremiah Masoli and Thomas all enjoyed their fair share of success in Eugene. Some even surpassed Smith and/or Harrington from a statistical standpoint. Clemens was a respectable second-round pick of the New York Jets in 2006. But their collective lack of NFL success has made the dreaded “system” tag a sobering and accurate one.
The last Oregon quarterback to have a good NFL career? Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. He was drafted into the league in 1973.
Should he choose to declare for the 2014 NFL Draft following his redshirt sophomore season, Mariota will be working against all that precedent suggesting that Ducks QBs aren’t worthy of draft picks. Yet he might also have enough in his favor to break that curse.
Of all the QBs who’ve gone through Eugene in recent years, Mariota might be the best. He ended the 2012 season one TD pass short of Thomas’ single-season school record while also completing 68.5% of his passes. He also showed off his wheels, rushing for 7.1 YPC (752 yards overall) and another five TDs.
That he did all this in his first year as the starter has to make both Oregon coaches and NFL scouts eager to see how he could improve. He still has room to grow when it comes to the mental and physical aspects of the game. The latter aspect is particularly enticing considering that he’s only 19 years old yet already stands 6-foot-4 and 211 pounds.
Also helping Mariota’s cause is the fact that his improving skillset — one that his predecessors also possessed — is suddenly in high demand at the NFL level. The success of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick has GMs of struggling teams looking high and low for franchise QBs adept at running a read option attack like those aforementioned three players.
It’s easy to envision Mariota developing in much the same way Kaepernick did. Like Mariota, Kaepernick was a “system QB” in college (running the Pistol Offense at Nevada under Chris Ault) yet also had the size and upside necessary to be a viable NFL quarterback prospect. He then packed on considerable muscle to prepare for the rigors of the NFL (he was quite the beanpole in college) and worked on his passing (yet didn’t do so at the expense of making an impact as a runner).
And should the league-wide obsession with read-option quarterbacks turn out to be a fad, Mariota will still have something to offer as a passer — one with the build and the accuracy that GMs have looked for in traditional drop-back passers for decades. Kaepernick proved himself last year as a passer (62.4% completion and a 98.3 QB rating), something that Mariota has the physical makeup to duplicate.
Of course, before we can speculate on Mariota’s viability as an NFL prospect, he has to take care of business at Oregon in what could be his final college season. How will he respond to being a focal point of the Ducks’ high-scoring attack rather than just a mere facilitator? Can he prevent the late-season loss that has doomed Oregon’s title chances in each of the past two years? Will he find a way to statistically trump a freshman year that many QBs would be happy to have as their career year?
Only after all that can he focus on stopping a far-too-long NFL hex on Oregon QBs dead in its tracks.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.
Bottom Photo Credit: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports