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Marcus Mariota mythbusting: Oregon's Mark Helfrich lauds QB

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EUGENE, Ore. -- At first blush, Mark Helfrich struggles with the question.

It's understandable. After all, how is the Oregon coach supposed to pick out just a play or two from Marcus Mariota's starry career to define the quarterback's readiness for the NFL?

And then, over the course of a half-hour interview, they just start to come out naturally.

"There's that very memorable play from last season," Helfrich recalls, "where he kinda stumbles out and flips it to Royce Freeman against Michigan State."

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On the play, a third-and-11 with the Ducks down nine in the third quarter, Mariota executed a play-action fake to Freeman, stepped up in a collapsing pocket to avoid Spartan linebacker Darien Harris, broke left to escape from Riley Bullough, and ran toward Freeman, shoveling him the ball in space that the tailback used to pick up a vital first down.

"That's really the fifth guy in his progression in that deal," Helfrich explains.

Five minutes later, another light-bulb flips on in Helfrich's head: "The fourth-down play against Oregon State (in 2013), it was the fourth guy in his progression, to win that game right at the end. And he made a great throw to Josh Huff."

Sure enough, on that one, Mariota ran the fake to Thomas Tyner with 34 seconds on the clock, looked to one receiver in the left flat, and another just inside of that one, before whipping his head to the middle of the field and delivering a strike between the hashmarks for the game-winner. Quick eyes? An ability to go through progressions? The ball hit Huff's gloves as the clock ticked from 32 to 31 seconds.

"He sees the field really well," the coach says. "He processes things almost too quickly for his own good sometimes -- his eyes or his brain are on that third or fourth thing in the progression and his feet are still on No. 1. That's where he's had a couple -- and we're nitpicking the most efficient passer in college football history -- issues, where his feet are off-balance. And it's, 'He was 9-for-9, but on the 10th, he missed that throw.' "

Through the three-month pre-draft process, public perception formed on the highest-profile players can often prove indelible. The rap on Mariota -- from a gimmick offense ... too quiet ... a projection as a player and as a leader -- is well-known.

And so we came here to find out why those who have coached him, like Helfrich, rail so vehemently against that perception.

"He might be the fastest guy on the field, but his mind is even faster," Philadelphia Eagles coach Chip Kelly said on ESPN, just before Mariota's final college game in January. "He thinks like Peyton Manning."

To some degree, Mariota gets lumped in a box with guys like Robert Griffin III and Colin Kaepernick, athletic quarterbacks who struggled with the second adjustment to the league. Initially, those two players' drafting teams incorporated parts of their college schemes to ease the transition, but both QBs struggled to add counterpunches and expand their respective games after early success.

And Helfrich does agree that there will be plenty of growing for his quarterback to do. He just disagrees that the amount of change for Mariota will be substantially different than it is for others.

"Our system has aspects of a lot of systems," Helfrich says. "We're not a quote-unquote spread offense that says, 'Hey, throw it here; and if not, run.' We don't do that. He has split-field reads. He has full-field reads. He has coverage-based reads -- go to this, based on man or zone. All of those things. All the things that NFL teams run, he's been exposed to. Is it a mirror of any system in the NFL? Absolutely not. And nobody else is, either. There are a lot of 'can't-miss' guys who've missed on the next level, because it's hard."

Helfrich then drives home his point: "Marcus -- as a person, as a player -- is as well-equipped as anyone."

To be sure, I ran that by sources with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans who, over the last three months, have been intimately involved with vetting just about every minute of Mariota's 21 years on the planet. They concurred that the above is dead on and that Helfrich (and before him, Kelly) asked plenty of Mariota, stuff that will translate to the pros.

One of the sources texted, "He's smart, he's athletic, he makes good decisions. Not much of a projection at all."

As Helfrich sees it, Mariota's growth from a mental standpoint from 2011 to now, and the load he carried last fall as a fourth-year junior with a young offense around him, is proof positive that he'll grow into an NFL system efficiently and effectively.

"From a system standpoint, we ask our quarterback to do a lot," Helfrich says. "They have to adjust protection, they're checking plays. The one thing that is absolutely different is we don't talk a lot, there's not a lot of verbiage in our offense. We try to make that a positive, in our system. I was joking with a couple of NFL guys, 'So are your plays better because there are more words in them?' We pride ourselves on being more efficient.

"That, again, is not (indicative of) the system. The route structure, all the things he has to think about, they're exactly the same. We just call them something different. For him, that'll be very easy."

Still, Helfrich can at least understand where some of the concerns about Mariota's on-field transition come from. It's the other questions that have really perturbed him and his staff throughout draft season.

Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost put it this way to oregonlive.com: "Some of them were great questions and some of them were some of the dumbest questions I've ever heard. I think it's ridiculous to think Marcus is too nice to play football."

Frost's boss laughs at his assistant's comments, but agrees: "It is bizarre, some of the questions or comparisons."

Helfrich does concede there are things that they did to push Mariota at times to get more vocal. But the structure of the Oregon program, more or less, allowed him to be himself.

As fast as the Ducks play, they practice even faster. So much of the leading is done by example. And when you're moving that fast, from drill to drill (in practice) or snap-to-snap (in a game), there isn't a lot of time for the quarterback to go Dan Marino on his teammates anyway.

"He was our best practice player from Day 1, he was our most competitive practice player from Day 1," Helfrich says. "He just got a little more vocal every year, almost every single day, by developing the confidence, getting out of his shell. In his culture, that's not what you do. You don't show up on Day 1 and tell other people what to do. You show up and you work. And all that did is getting every single teammate in position, every coach, every administrator in position to do whatever that guy would ask."

And that became even more important as players like Huff, Kenjon Barner, Kyle Long and De'Anthony Thomas made their way off the roster and to the NFL.

Eventually, the coach says, through bringing younger guys along and into those vacated spots, everyone got a better idea of the method by which Mariota works. The proof of its effectiveness? The line of teammates willing to follow him into the fire.

"They would do anything -- anything -- he said," Helfrich explains. "And that's offense, defense, special teams, redshirt senior or true freshman, whoever it was. And sometimes, he would yell -- I believe he's even cursed a couple times. I know that's a shocking development. But Marcus' style is to work first and talk second. And he's gonna put his arm around you first, and try to figure out how to know each individual best and communicate with them most effectively, and go from there.

"A lot of times, that's all it took -- 'Hey, we need you to do A, B or C,' and it happened. Absolutely, sometimes, he's loud and yelling at one guy or one unit or the entire team. That sometimes gets misunderstood."

So now, Mariota has to do it all over again. Learn to fit his skills into the offense of whomever drafts him. Learn to work his personality into an NFL locker room. He'll have to huddle, too, unless a certain someone in Philly drafts him.

And it'll test him again.

"His assertiveness is something that will be tested," Helfrich says. "What I mean by that: He's a rookie in an NFL locker room -- everyone's assertiveness will be tested. He'll just grind through that. And then just spitting out the verbiage, which for him will just be a matter of repetition, having the offensive coordinator now being in the earpiece. That's something that just will happen in the first set of OTAs or training camp, or whatever phase they start at now. It's just doing it."

No one knows if Mariota will make it, no matter what you've heard the last three months. But what everyone who's worked with him here -- from Kelly to Helfrich to Frost -- seems convinced of is that he'll give himself the best chance to get where he wants to go. And there's a reason why they're all so sure.

"Demonstrated evidence," Helfrich says quickly. "Seeing him be him on a daily basis. And again, everything has to fall in the right place. There have been some very talented guys, some great human beings, that haven't won Super Bowls. But for where we are, where we sit today, going into the draft? I cannot imagine a person more suited to being a franchise quarterback, a person more suited to lead a team."

Asked where Mariota will be in 15 years, Helfrich simply says that he'll be making people smile somewhere.

Making it in the NFL is complicated, of course. But as for what the Titans or Browns or whoever else will get on Thursday night?

"You're getting Marcus," Helfrich says. "It's a one-word description for us of all those things that make him who he is. That's, at this stage of the game, the total package."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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