Mark Helfrich had answered one question, maybe two, before the pack began to move away en masse.
There they went, off to the far left corner of Oregon’s confined interview room at the Len Casanova Center. The abandoning reporters meant no offense to Oregon’s offensive coordinator, whose Green team had just fallen to Nick Aliotti’s White team in the annual spring game. Helfrich was, in fact, a wanted man among these scribes — one of the most knowledgeable talking heads when it came to the ongoing quarterback controversy between a battle-tested junior and a mysterious redshirt freshman. But still, they fled, because the man of the hour had just made a characteristically quiet entrance.
Marcus Mariota was ready to take questions.
To call him a “man” would seem a stretch, even. He was just 18, and at that point had yet to complete his freshman year of college. Yet, in this confined space, after a breakout performance that saw the Honolulu, Hawaii, native complete 18 of 26 passes for 202 yards while running for 99 more, he was the room’s shining star, his 6-foot-4 frame overshadowing even the eldest statesmen on the team. For a moment, at least, he was living out his dream of being the star quarterback of a major collegiate team.
And he acted the part, too. Cool and collected, lounging in shorts and a white “Samoa” athletic shirt (emblazoned with the Nike logo, of course), his voice barely raised an octave as he answered the predictable questions about how he felt about his performance, what could be improved, what his plan was going forward. Eventually, once it became clear that Mariota was in high demand, he was moved from that chair to the podium, where Darron Thomas would plop down after nearly every home game less than a year earlier. If the bright lights fazed him, he wasn’t showing it; not in front of the assembled scribes, and not in front of the 44,000 people who had gathered, in large part, to see exactly what this new kid from Hawaii was made of.
If only they knew.
Darnell Arceneaux was brand new on the job as St. Louis High School’s head football coach when he met Marcus Ardel Taulauniu Mariota. Arceneaux, once a star himself at St. Louis, was returning to the school after moving on from another coaching job. Mariota, meanwhile, was just about to complete his junior year and looking to finally take his place as the team’s starter after a three-year wait.
He was one of the first students Arceneaux noticed when the team gathered for spring drills, and with good reason. Mariota towered over most of his peers at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds. He was handsome and distinctly Samoan, with a bright smile and boundless potential. He had a look in his eye, Arceneaux recalls, one that seemed to peer into the newly installed head coach and press him with a single question:
“Coach, I can’t wait … what you got for me?”
Arceneaux was, in his words, an “uppity, rah-rah kind of coach,” and if there was one flaw in Mariota’s makeup — on the surface at least — it was that he seemed almost too laid back. The “Hawaiian island chill” isn’t entirely stereotypical, and the regal junior seemed to embody that persona completely.
“He was kind of too laid back,” Arceneaux says. “And at first it kind of struck me like, ‘Maybe this kid doesn’t want it.’”
That notion was quickly rebuffed, as Mariota seized control of summer camp from the onset. The physical talents were obvious — not only did Mariota possess game-breaking speed, he also proved to have a deft touch passing the ball, a great “spin” on it in Arceneaux’s terms. At one point, during seven-on-seven drills, he unleashed a pass that even Arceneaux — a former quarterback himself who went on to play at Utah — admits he couldn’t have thrown at that age.
“We’ve got something here,” he thought.
There was never really any question whether Mariota would start. His physical stature and burgeoning mastery of the offense had Arceneaux immediately convinced that he’d found his man, and he wanted to establish that leadership position right away. If there was any doubt in his mind that Mariota could handle the job, it was extinguished quickly.
“There was no doubt in my mind that he was our guy,” Arceneaux says. “But he came out every day like he was battling for a job.”
In true Polynesian fashion — “local boy style,” as the Hawaiians term it — Mariota chose to lead more through example than by mouth. What Arceneaux originally viewed as aloofness was actually more like slow burning firewood: level and steady, but undeniably intense.
“He’s one of those guys that can change the morale of a room,” Arceneaux says. ”And when I say something like that, you know he’s in the room without him having to say anything. That’s the kind of leaders in quarterbacks that I look for in my program. If he’s in the room, he doesn’t need to be loud, he doesn’t need to be flamboyant or do things to bring attention to himself, but he can still change the way the room is acting or whatnot, by just his presence alone.”
And when he needed to speak up, Mariota did. He just picked his spots, and when that low voice echoed through the room, people listened. Early in the 2010 season, with Mariota at the helm, St. Louis fell behind early to Kahuku High School. Nothing seemed to be going right, and Mariota had seen enough.
“It’s not about how we started,” he told his teammates. “And it’s not about if we’re going to win this game or not. It’s about how we gotta finish, and how we gotta always compete and we gotta learn how to push through these errors.”
As Arceneaux recalls, Mariota even got in the faces of a few teammates, as if personally challenging them to be better. If the outcome was already set in stone — St. Louis lost by 21 points — a far more important precedent had been set. Mariota would hold people accountable, and he was every bit the leader that Arceneaux had doubted back in the spring. St. Louis wouldn’t lose another game that season, and went on to win the state title. Mariota was a whirling dervish on the field, throwing for 2,597 yards and 32 touchdowns with just five interceptions, while also rushing for 455 yards and seven touchdowns.
With the season behind him, Mariota could now look to the future, having committed to Oregon back in the summer of 2010. He would be arriving amidst a stable of quarterbacks including Darron Thomas and the highly-touted Bryan Bennett, but after sitting through a three-year wait at St. Louis, the situation in Oregon likely seemed less than daunting.
He’d been through this drill before.
And, indeed, throughout his first season in Eugene, Mariota existed as mostly a shadow — unseen within the newly closed confines of practice and jogging undisturbed past the reporters gathered outside for interviews. He was redshirting, barred from seeing the field unless it was an absolute emergency. While sophomore Bryan Bennett proved his worth when Darron Thomas went down with a knee injury, Mariota watched and waited. The Ducks, of course, won the Rose Bowl in January, but Mariota was little more than a spectator within the jubilation.
When Thomas rather surprisingly left school a year early and entered the NFL draft, most assumed Bennett would plug in neatly as the starting quarterback. He had the pedigree (a four-star recruit to Mariota’s three, according to Scout.com) and invaluable live game experience. What Mariota had — well, no one quite knew. He was as much a mystery to fans and the media as he was to Arceneaux back in early 2010.
Yet, there were hints. In an early spring teleconference, just before practices were set to begin, Chip Kelly made a point of singing Mariota’s praises.
“He’s a real sharp kid,” Kelly said. “You really don’t have to correct him more than once. He very rarely makes the same mistake twice and has worked really hard at the off the field stuff — studying tape on his own and doing all those other things.
“He’s got a real good grasp of what we’re doing, so I think we feel real confident as a staff in our quarterback situation.”
Later in the spring, during the third week of practice, linebacker Michael Clay shed light on what he had seen from the other side of the ball.
“He’s really calm,” Clay said. “He’s very calm and collected. Whatever he does … he’s really calm, and he just has things under wraps and he’s not really frenetic or anything like that.”
And in his trademark fashion, Mariota found a way to connect to teammates without necessarily being the loudest guy in the room. Each morning, he shook hands with every player he came across, made sure to say hello. In post-practice media sessions — which became much more common for him during spring practices — his easygoing friendliness also extended to reporters, whom he’d smile at and even clap on the shoulder as a form of greeting. To watch and hear about it all was to witness a young freshman making his way in a new world.
“There’s still things that I feel like I can improve on,” Mariota says. “Establish myself as a leader and making sure people understand that together we can accomplish big things. That’s what we’re hoping.”
None of that would matter, of course, without progress on the field, and to that end, Mariota continued to work with an almost frightening single-mindedness. Just like in high school, he approached every day like he was fighting for a job — only this time, he really was. Even during his spring break, when he returned to Honolulu, Mariota could often be found waiting outside Arceneaux’s office, ready to break down tape or throw passes to some of the high school’s newer pupils.
“It’s almost where I’ve gotta tell him, ‘Why don’t you just go have fun?’” Arceneaux says. “You always enjoy this time of your life, because you only get this once. But he understands that he’s got this one shot to make his dreams comes true. You only get those in special guys.”
The April 28 Spring Game was where it was all supposed to pay off, at least in the short term, before fall camp in August and the season opener in September. Mariota himself admitted beforehand that it was one of the biggest games of his career, even if it didn’t count for anything in the record books.
With ESPN cameras and 44,129 eyes trained on him that Saturday, Mariota positively shined. His first two passes were short completions, baby steps on a high-tempo drive that would end in a touchdown. “That was impressive,” Kelly said in an interview with ESPN after the drive ended. “And that’s what we’ve seen all spring from Marcus. He’s got a real good command of what we’re doing.”
He wasn’t done, either. Breaking hard to his right in the second quarter, Mariota faked the option toss and cut left into the open field. All of a sudden, a gaping hole opened up in the defense, and he was off to the races. The crowd erupted as he loped into the endzone, 82 yards later. By this time, ESPN’s Chris Fowler and Brock Huard were knee deep in Dennis Dixon comparisons, and their fawning only continued when Mariota roped a pretty touch pass for a 35-yard touchdown to Daryle Hawkins less than two minutes later. It was all smiles on that sideline afterward, and the cameras picked up a rare uncensored moment when Mariota embraced defensive back Erick Dargan — with a handshake, of course.
“Take that shit, Marcus!” Dargan yelled as he walked away.
Whether he will, indeed, take the starting quarterback job and run with it remains to be seen. Despite that breakout game in April — and a comparatively mundane performance from his competition — experience should play in the favor of Bennett going into fall camp. But Kelly is nothing if not unpredictable, and the last time the head coach faced such a decision at quarterback, he went with the relatively unknown Darron Thomas over senior Nate Costa. Anything can happen, and that’s the sentiment Kelly prefers until he finally names a starter the week before the season opener against Arkansas State.
None of that — not the complex machinations of Kelly’s mind, nor the ongoing development of Bennett — is within Mariota’s control. All he can do is keep his head down and continue to work, to shake hands with every player he sees before practice and command the room with his quiet presence — just as he did at St. Louis.
Local boy style — lead with example, not the mouth. It’s all he’s ever known.