The changing nature of the football landscape has led offensive coordinators to covet quarterbacks with a combination of arm talent, athleticism and savvy. The top quarterbacks at every level have the ability to torment the defense with their arm and legs. As I surveyed the college game to see which quarterbacks have the potential to alter the prototype of the position at the next level, one player who stood out was Oregon's Marcus Mariota.
Now, I know fans of Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel will have plenty to say about that, but I'm basing my opinion on the combination of mental, physical and athletic characteristics that Mariota has exhibited as the director of the Ducks' high-octane spread attack. As the consummate dual-threat quarterback with a strong arm and explosive quickness, Mariota ranks as one of the nation's leaders in passing efficiency and rushing yards per attempt. He has an uncanny knack for getting his team to the end zone.
With the buzz building about Mariota's game and pro potential, I thought I would take a closer look at his play against Cal on Saturday night to get a better feel for where he stands.
The speed and athleticism of NFL defenders have led offensive coordinators to covet quarterbacks with superior agility. Although exceptional running ability is not a requirement, the threat of designed quarterback runs and impromptu scrambles significantly alters defensive game plans.
Mariota is a game changer at the position. At 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, with speed in the 4.4 range, he is a dynamic athlete capable of wreaking havoc on the perimeter. He is quick enough to avoid defenders in space and has the explosiveness to score from anywhere on the field with the ball in his hands. Additionally, Mariota has the size to withstand the punishment from defenders when he elects to flee the pocket. The redshirt sophomore entered the game against Cal averaging a remarkable 17.5 yards per rushing attempt, which includes four runs of 25-plus yards. He continued to display his explosive athleticism against the Bears by rushing for 33 yards on six attempts. Most important, he acted like Houdini in the pocket on multiple occasions, eluding defenders to make throws to the perimeter.
NFL teams without stable offensive lines appreciate that kind of improvisation, and Mariota is unquestionably one of the most intriguing dual-threat quarterbacks in college football.
For all of the excitement generated by Mariota's athleticism and running skills, it has been his ability to make every throw in the book that has captivated NFL scouts. He easily throws the ball to every area of the field with superb zip and velocity. Additionally, Mariota is capable of changing the pace and trajectory of his throws to drop balls into tight areas.
These characteristics stood out on tape during my early-season film study of Mariota, but against Cal he was a little disappointing in this regard. The driving rain storm and windy conditions hindered his chances of making accurate throws, but his erratic ball placement throughout the game prevented the Ducks' passing game from sustaining a rhythm. Mariota repeatedly missed open receivers on pop passes and seam routes down the middle and had a few throws on out-breaking routes sail over the top of intended receiver.
To be fair, I need to see Mariota perform in better conditions to accurately gauge his arm talent, but his play against the Bears suggests he is a talented passer who still needs some work to develop into an elite thrower at the next level.
The Ducks' warp-speed offense operates like poetry in motion under Mariotta's direction. He has a complete grasp of the playbook, which allows him to make several checks and adjustments at the line. It's common to see Mariota move the running back to a different location in the backfield to guarantee optimal pass protection or put him in the right spot to execute one of the dizzying zone-read plays that are the foundation of the offense. Against Cal, Mariota was superb orchestrating the chaos at the line of scrimmage. He quickly fielded the playcall from the sideline and moved his teammates into the right spots. Additionally, he appeared to audible a few playcalls to defeat the Bears' blitz in the early stages of the game.
In the NFL, the pre-snap phase is important, but elite quarterbacks consistently display sound judgment once the ball is in play. Mariota shows those skills by brilliantly executing the Ducks' read-option offense, which features a number of zone-read plays and run-pass concepts that require the quarterback to read multiple defenders in a nanosecond after the snap. From his ability to read the defensive end on inside zone-read plays to identifying the open receiver on "pop" pass-option plays, Mariota's superb football intelligence allows the Ducks to combat most defensive tactics.
Although he must show evaluators in interviews and chalk-talk sessions that he can orchestrate the game effectively in a pro-style system, there is nothing about Mariota's play on the field that suggests he'll be unable to make the transition at the next level.
The top quarterbacks in football exhibit the ability to thrive amid chaos in the pocket. They are willing to hang in and deliver despite the presence of multiple defenders in close proximity. This display of courage and mental toughness is one of the biggest factors in playing the game well at the next level, which is why scouts pore over the tape repeatedly to see if a passer flinches under duress.
Mariota shows excellent poise in the pocket. He has a knack for feeling defenders around him, but his eyes appear to stay downfield as the play progresses. As a result, he torments defenses with his ability to extend plays with his feet before finding an open receiver on a scramble drill. Mariota hurt the Bears a few times with semi-scramble tosses that resulted in huge gains. Given his combination of improvisational skills and pocket poise, Mariota could be a nightmare to defend at the next level.
To be a franchise-caliber quarterback in the minds of evaluators, a prospect must show the ability to put a team on his shoulders in a pinch. He must be able to make critical throws when the game hangs in the balance or scouts will write him off as a game manager. Mariota hasn't played in many close games at Oregon, but he is the driving force of the Ducks' offense. His brilliant execution of the zone-read makes the running game difficult to defend, and his mastery of the Ducks' play-action passing game is nearly impossible to stop. Against Cal, he showed flashes of his brilliance as a dual-threat playmaker despite being slightly off his game as a passer. He connected on a handful of play-action pop passes between the hashes, including a deep crosser to Colt Lyerla in the second quarter.
With Mariota putting defensive coordinators in a bind with his unique skill set, the Ducks have been able to light up scoreboards on a weekly basis.
The buzz has been building about Mariota's pro potential since he lit up the Pac-12 as the leader in passing efficiency on the way to winning the Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year award. He has continued to build upon that momentum as a redshirt sophomore by dizzying defenses around the country with his unique skills as a dual-threat playmaker.
Although he didn't have his A-game against Cal last weekend, he remains an intriguing prospect with the potential to emerge as the new prototype for the position at the next level. Of course, he needs to put on a show against the Ducks' toughest opponents -- Washington, UCLA and Stanford -- to cement his status as a big-game player. But there is no disputing Mariota's potential as a franchise quarterback at the next level.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.