EUGENE, Ore. — He huddled and he lined up under center, but he swears, it actually wasn’t as weird as it looked.
Marcus Mariota took to the field on Thursday afternoon in the Moshofsky Center at the University of Oregon for the Ducks' pro day, surrounded by TV cameras, reporters and approximately 150 NFL personnel. In his last chance to make a public case for the being the No. 1 overall pick in the April 30 NFL draft, the 2014 Heisman winner admitted to nerves, extra emotion and not being quite as sharp as he hoped. Mariota completed 60 of 67 attempts, including 9 of 10 in the red zone. He underthrew a few receivers on deep routes, as teammates had to reach to corral passes.
But does it really matter? Mariota already had a private workout scheduled late Thursday with the Tennessee Titans, current owners of the No. 2 overall pick. Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, whose team will select first, chatted with Oregon coach Mark Helfrich Thursday and followed Mariota around the field.
Known for his moving Heisman acceptance speech, Mariota is undoubtedly impressive in one-on-one interviews. Of course so is Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Mariota’s biggest competition for the top pick, who's hailed for his charismatic and charming personality. He’s not short on talent either. Regardless of Mariota’s Pro Day showing—he did not run or lift, opting to stick with his combine numbers—the 6’4”, 222-pounder will get picked early.
“I thought at the combine I threw better,” admitted Mariota, who passed for 4,454 yards and 42 touchdowns and ran for an additional 770 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2014. “Today, there was a lot of emotion being back in Eugene. That’s caused some nervousness … At the same time, I thought it went well both days.”
As Johnny Manziel could attest, a good pro day doesn’t necessarily translate to immediate pro success. And a poor performance doesn’t mean you’re doomed to ride the bench. Minnesota’s Teddy Bridgewater underwhelmed at Louisville’s Pro Day and dropped in the draft but had a terrific rookie season, throwing for 2,919 yards and 14 touchdowns. He started 12 games, and finished with a 64.4 completion percentage. He also broke 91 franchise records.
Forever in his corner, Mariota’s teammates weren’t worried about the junior’s performance Thursday, even if he wasn’t his usual superhuman self.
“He’s a guy who, every year, improved drastically,” said cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who’s rehabbing an ACL tear and watched from the sidelines. “He only played one year of high school (as a starter) and coaches knew what he could do. I think that tells you a lot about his work ethic. Whether he has to sit out or not, he’s still going to be working as hard as he needs to so when his name is called, he’ll be ready.”
Going under center wasn’t as foreign to Mariota as it was for people who have watched him the last few years. Mariota pointed out he did it as a kid growing up in Hawaii, and center Hroniss Grasu, who’s been training with Mariota in San Diego, said for the last four years he and Mariota started every practice under center before moving to the shotgun. Still, Grasu laughed and said he appreciated how odd it must be for everyone else to see. Mariota also had familiarity with the guy running the throwing session. Browns quarterbacks coach Kevin O’Connell trained Mariota in San Diego leading up to the combine before being hired by Cleveland on Feb. 17.
“He’s been a tremendous help to me,” Mariota said of O’Connell. “He always harped on me about footwork and keeping my base solid wherever I was moving in the pocket. It’s tough to see that at pro day, but it’s stuff I’ve been working on.”
Mariota, who is still unsure where he’ll watch the draft, planned to fly to New Jersey late Thursday for an “east coast tour,” though that mostly involves award banquets. But he’s bringing his cleats just in case any team requests a private workout.
On hand for most of Mariota’s workout, Helfrich did not address the media scrum but chatted live with NFL Network, one of four stations set up in the Mo Center; Fox Sports 1, ESPN and NBC Sports were also on hand for live hits, a spectacle not seen at previous Ducks pro days and another example of Mariota’s star power. When asked how Mariota can project at the next level, Helfrich told NFL Network, “Talk to him. Talk to him and watch film … Not all spreads are created equal and not all quarterbacks are made equal. Marcus is a quarterback, not a spread quarterback.
“He knows scheme, he knows offense, he knows defense. He knows not only what to do but why it’s done. And he immediately knows why … Those are things, no matter what system you’re in, you have to do to have success at the next level.”
Keanon Lowe, the recipient of multiple Mariota passes at Oregon and a fellow participant Thursday, said he didn’t need to make any sort of campaign speech on Mariota’s behalf. According to Lowe, Mariota's play speaks for itself, even if all his skills weren’t on display at the pro day. Praised for his ability to throw on the run and make split-second decisions, Mariota didn’t get to demonstrate that Thursday. The quarterback doesn’t see it as reason to panic. He uses individual meetings and workouts to “express the knowledge” he has, confident his game will translate to the next level.
Speculation has swirled the last week about Philadelphia changing its roster in hopes of reuniting Mariota with former Oregon coach and current Eagles coach Chip Kelly, rumors that make Mariota shrug. “It’s a process controlled by other people,” he said, refusing to play into hypotheticals. Kelly earlier called Mariota the best quarterback in the 2015 draft class, which prompted the soft-spoken Mariota to laugh Thursday. “That was really nice of him,” Mariota said. “When I see him, I’ll thank him for that.”
But will he get a chance to thank him in person, maybe while wearing a Philly jersey? Mariota isn’t sure. And right now, he’s not stressing about it, either.