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Oregon's Marcus Mariota yet to prove he's franchise QB

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EUGENE, Ore. -- There is nothing like having the opportunity to watch a franchise quarterback play in a big game with championship implications. The atmosphere mirrors the pressurized environment of playing in a prime-time game at the next level. Thus, I was excited to see Oregon QB Marcus Mariota play against Arizona in front of a raucous crowd Thursday at Autzen Stadium.

Now, I knew a host of injuries along the offensive line left the Ducks shorthanded in this Pac-12 showdown, but I wanted to see how the junior performed without a stellar supporting cast. I thought this game would reveal a lot about Mariota's talent, leadership, competitiveness and football character.

Most importantly, I believed this contest would give the redshirt-junior standout a terrific opportunity to display the "it" factor that is essential to succeeding as a franchise quarterback at the next level.

» Mariota, Oregon falter in loss to Arizona

From a talent standpoint, Mariota's performance against the Wildcats confirmed that he's a special player with all of the physical tools to succeed as a quarterback at the next level. He's an explosive athlete with rare speed and quickness for the position who also displays elite arm talent as a passer.

Mariota is capable of making every throw from the pocket with zip and velocity, while also displaying adequate ball placement and accuracy on touch throws. Although he misfired on a handful of intermediate throws down the seam, he appeared to be comfortable delivering darts on curls and switch routes at the edge of the numbers. He displayed outstanding velocity, anticipation and timing on those throws, leading me to believe he could certainly play in a quick-rhythm offense built around short and intermediate throws.

As a deep-ball passer, Mariota didn't have many opportunities to push the ball down the field against the Wildcats' defense, but he connected on a few deep routes to Devon Allen and Dwayne Stanford that showcased his anticipation and timing on seam throws. He dropped the ball into the bucket on each throw, displaying great touch and trajectory on those throws. In addition, Mariota showed excellent touch on a deep ball down the sideline to Darren Carrington, but the pass was ruled incomplete when officials confirmed that the tip of the ball touched the ground when the lanky receiver extended to pull the ball in. Regardless, the timing and throw were on point, and I came away impressed with his ability to float the ball down the boundary on fade routes.

Looking at Mariota work within the pocket, I thought the Oregon standout showed patience, courage and toughness behind a leaky offensive line. Despite taking a host of big hits from the blindside, he didn't appear to flinch with defenders in close proximity nor flee the pocket at the first sign of leakage.

While I wouldn't mind seeing Mariota use his athleticism and agility to avoid some of the shots that he received from Wildcat defenders, I walked away encouraged by his willingness to endure a pounding while attempting to push the ball down the field. However, I must point out that he needs to do a better job of protecting the football in the pocket after watching him lose a pair of fumbles on strip-sacks on the perimeter.

If I had to point out some other concerns from Mariota's performance, I would cite his overall pocket awareness and anticipation. He occasionally runs into sacks when he runs around within the pocket. Although the poor protection along the line leads to the miscues, Mariota needs to learn how to step up and around defenders within a collapsing pocket to deliver accurate strikes down the field. Sure, he does it on occasion, but he must excel in this area to be an efficient pocket passer at the next level.

I always believe it's important to evaluate quarterbacks in two-minute and late-game situations to see how they handle the pressure of having to make big plays in a crisis. Against Arizona, I was a little disappointed in how Mariota performed with the game on the line. Although he had the Ducks marching down the field on the final drive, he committed a fatal turnover that sealed his team's fate. Now, I certainly understand that a primary ball handler will have some miscues, but Mariota's penchant for fumbling upon contact (two fumbles and he lost the ball on a touchdown) is an issue that needs to be addressed. He can't continue to put the ball on the turf in key situations because turnovers are typically the deciding factor in big games.

Additionally, Mariota needs to show evaluators that he can deliver in the clutch to alleviate concerns about his poise, composure and performance under pressure. With the Ducks' explosive offense running roughshod over most opponents, Mariota rarely is thrust into a high-pressure situation with the game on the line. If he gets another opportunity to bring the Ducks back in the final minutes, he must deliver to confirm his status as a clutch performer.

Overall, I walked away from the game with a solid feel for Mariota and his game. While he's an impressive athlete with considerable arm talent, he remains a bit of a developmental prospect as a dropback passer. Sure, a creative offensive play caller can mask Mariota's deficiencies by running some of the core concepts of the spread, but Mariota will only become a franchise player when he learns how to consistently win from the pocket.

Here are my observations on other prospects that caught my eye Thursday night:

» Oregon CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu certainly lives up to the hype as one of college football's top cover corners. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior threw a blanket over Arizona WR Cayleb Jones, exhibiting the technical skills, instincts and physicality that NFL scouts covet in elite cornerbacks. From his accurate hand placements and explosive lateral movement skills to his savvy utilization of "bail" technique, Ekpre-Olomu displayed a mastery of the fundamentals that leads me to believe that he can play in any scheme at the next level.

To that point, I talked to several NFL scouts in attendance about Ekpre-Olomu's game and they expressed some concern about his reactions after viewing the Washington State film. The All-Pac-12 defender gave up three touchdowns in that contest and reportedly didn't play the ball well in the red zone. While I still believe Ekpre-Olomu is the premier cover corner in the college ranks, he must continue to put on solid showings against the elite Pac-12 receivers remaining on the schedule to quiet the skeptics questioning his potential as a shutdown corner.

» The college football world doesn't know much about Oregon RB/WR Byron Marshall, but the 5-10, 205-pound junior displays a versatile game that could make him an intriguing prospect down the road. Against the Wildcats, Marshall primarily aligned in the slot and ran an assortment of flat routes and switch routes that allowed him to work against linebackers and nickel defenders in space. The shifty playmaker created excellent separation on underneath routes and displayed some elusiveness making tacklers miss in the open field. Marshall is not in the class of former Duck and 2014 fourth-round pick De'Anthony Thomas as a "do-it-all" playmaker, but he flashes enough versatility to be a contributing player down the road.

» NFL scouts are paying close attention to the development of Arizona WR Cayleb Jones this season. The former five-star recruit has blossomed into a prototypical No. 1 receiver for the Wildcats, exhibiting a nice combination of size, strength and athleticism that could make him tough to guard at the next level. Although Jones struggled shaking free from Ekpre-Olomu for most of the contest, the Wildcats' decision to switch him to the right side (Jones normally aligns as an outside WR on the left) helped him make an impact in the second half. Jones finished the night with three catches for 50 yards, and drew a critical pass interference penalty that set up the Wildcats' game-winning score. With Jones' legacy (he is the son of former Dallas Cowboys LB Robert Jones) and physical dimensions enticing scouts in attendance, the Wildcats' star is a prospect worth monitoring the rest of the season.

» I didn't know much about Arizona RB Terris Jones-Grigsby prior to Thursday night, but the 5-7, 195-pound playmaker was the best player on the field for most of the game. Jones-Grigsby totaled 210 yards from scrimmage (115 rushing; 95 receiving) against the Ducks on 31 touches, while exhibiting terrific stop-start quickness on the perimeter. His vision, awareness and quickness helped him carve up the Ducks on an assortment of quick-hitting zone plays. Additionally, Jones-Grigsby was a major factor as a receiver on wheel and rail routes from the backfield. With the Ducks unable to contain the Wildcats' diminutive dynamo, NFL scouts could take a closer look at Jones-Grigsby to see if he's capable of carving out a role as a return specialist.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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