I think it is safe to say that Marcus Mariota surpassed all expectations last year. He threw for 2677 yards with a completion percentage of 68.5%. With only 6 interceptions and 32 touchdown passes Mariota had a passer rating of 135.6. Those would have good to great numbers for any Oregon quarterback under Chip Kelly. Take in to account that Marcus Mariota is a redshirt freshman and those numbers are surreal in a way.
Mariota truly played at a level above what is normal for a redshirt freshman quarterback. He showed so much poise and so much intelligence in every game. The lone game where you could Mariota struggled a little, and I've read interviews where he says he could have played a lot better, was the game against Stanford. If he ever showed his age or lack of experience it was the only game Oregon lost.
Marcus Mariota Football Highlights (via HawaiiSportsHawaii)
There's something to be said for people who make things look easy. The best at making it look easy was Michael Jordan, who after sinking his sixth 3-pointer of the first half against the Portland Trail Blazers in the 1992 NBA Finals (I know, I just cringed a little too) turns back to run on defense and shrugs his shoulders and raises his hands. Jordan is saying, "I don't get it either. It's just happening." From the moment I saw Marcus Mariota's high school highlight tape when writing a position preview last year I could tell that Mariota was going to be great. He seemed to pull away from people while looking like he wasn't even sprinting. Mariota would roll out and throw a 40-yard bomb with a flick of his wrist only to hit a receiver in stride. There are people who are good. There are people who are great. Then there are people who make being great look easy.
Michael Jordan 'The Shrug' vs Portland Trail Blazers (NBA Finals 1992) (via Marcos Fernández)
Dennis Dixon was really the quarterback that set the tone for every spread quarterback after him. In a way, the fact that Dennis Dixon is a tragic hero in that he most likely would've won the Heisman and would've led Oregon to a national title appearance has created a legend around him. You heard it all the time whenever there was a quarterback that kind of, sort of, reminded you of Dennis Dixon, "He's the next Dennis Dixon." It kind of sucked for the other quarterbacks that came after that weren't as complete as Dixon, to have to always be compared to a guy that would've won the Heisman.
One of the fundamental themes of college football is replacement. Every five years the team you are watching on the field is completely different. Players can burn so bright for up to four years and then they are gone. In no other sport is an expiration date on a career as clear. It's like answering you'd rather know when you die than not know. In a sense as fans we get used to a player's traits and once they are gone we are looking for something similar.
A lot of people said Marcus Mariota was the next Dennis Dixon, and with all due respect to Dennis Dixon, Marcus Mariota is probably the new standard to beat. Mariota has the complete package. Mariota may be a better runner than Dennis Dixon even though Dixon is probably a little faster in terms of straight-line speed. Mariota rushed for 722 yards and 5 touchdowns. There were also a lot of carries Mariota had where he was tackled inside the 10-yard line and would've scored if he had broken that one tackle.
Perhaps more impressive than his running ability is his touch on deep passes. Wheel routes, corner routes in the end zone, and touch passes down the seam were passes that Oregon fans hadn't seen in a long time because of how hard they are to execute. Jeremiah Masoli left some to be desired in his passing abilities and Darron Thomas had two throwing speeds: fast and "I'm going to break your fingers" fast. The ball can still explode out of Mariota's hand on swing routes and out routes, but the touch he can give on the other routes is what sets Mariota apart from his predecessors.
The most impressive part of Mariota's game is his poise and intelligence. He plays smart. If you were to make a list of the traits necessary for your ideal Oregon quarterback intelligence has to be at the top. Before running speed, durability, or throw power, intelligence has to be the most important part of playing an offense that goes as fast as Oregon's, requires the quarterback to read and react quickly, and leaves the quarterback in minimal protection a lot.
Re-watching games from last season it is clear that Mariota is a passer first. He loves staying in the pocket but whenever he scrambles his eyes are always downfield. I wouldn't say he's a reluctant runner, but he knows that passing to a receiver is the most efficient way to move the ball. Mariota is slippery in the pocket and I don't think anyone got a clean hit on him all year. In the Washington State game Mariota evades an almost sure sack and turns it in to a touchdown run. Mariota has found a great balance between playing calm and smart and two inches out of control.
Marcus Mariota 2012 Highlights (via madmike1951)
Right now Marcus Mariota has replaced what Oregon fans can expect from a freshman, fair or not. After his first year there are incredibly high expectations for him, fair or not. We know that Mariota will be around for three years max, but that this could also be his last year as a Duck. (I personally think he'll stay for one more year) We also know that Mariota has the potential to replace the expectations for a quarterback at Oregon. Instead of being the next Dennis Dixon people might be wondering where the next Marcus Mariota is. For now we have a quarterback that plays smart, plays hard, and rarely makes mistakes. I don't watch because I expect it to be a battle between regressing and what we have already seen from Mariota. I watch because Mariota could be the defining player of this era, the way LaMichael James was. Mariota will move on at some point and be replaced by another quarterback, but for now, his ability burns bright, and its best to enjoy it while its still here rather than worry about candles that have burned out or are son to be lit.