Life behind Marcus Mariota: The key role of Oregon backup QB Jeff Lockie

Life behind Marcus Mariota: The key role of Oregon backup QB Jeff Lockie.
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PASADENA, Calif. -- For once, Jeff Lockie didn’t know what to say.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound redshirt sophomore typically plays the cool, calm and collected role on the sideline, a necessary cog in the Oregon football machine. But this time, he didn’t have an immediate answer because he hadn’t been put in this situation very often. Just two times prior, to be exact. Marcus Mariota rarely throws interceptions. Lockie is the first person Mariota talks to when he trots off the field, and that usually happens after a touchdown, not a turnover. What was Lockie supposed to say?

Just before halftime of the Rose Bowl last Thursday against Florida State, with the Ducks leading 18-13, Mariota threw a pick, his third of the season. It was his first since the third quarter of a 45-16 win over Stanford on Nov. 1. Frustrated, Mariota went to the sideline where … he didn’t panic. Lockie breathed a sigh of relief.

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“He doesn’t throw many interceptions so when he does, it frightens me for a bit,” Lockie admitted in a jubilant postgame locker room where Oregon celebrated a 59-20 rout of the previously unbeaten Seminoles. “But for a guy who doesn’t experience it much, he actually handles it pretty well. He asked about the coverage, and we moved on.”  

Next Monday, when the No. 2 Ducks meet No. 4 Ohio State in the first-ever College Football Playoff final, there will be plenty of talk about backup quarterbacks. The Buckeyes are on their third signal-caller of the season following serious injuries to All-America candidate Braxton Miller (shoulder) and standout fill-in J.T. Barrett (knee). Cardale Jones has put together an impressive, if short, résumé: Back-to-back wins over ranked opponents (Wisconsin and Alabama), both of them in the postseason.

On the other sideline will stand a backup no one talks about, and of whom few know the importance. Lockie has thrown all of 27 passes this season, and 40 in his career. (For perspective, Mariota threw 36 passes against Florida State.) He is called upon for scrub time only. That’s life behind the best player in the country, he says with a shrug. “It’s not really a quarterback competition each year,” Lockie says. “I know that. Everyone knows that.”

Many column inches have already been devoted to the brilliance of Mariota, and understandably so. The 2014 Heisman winner is the type of player who can put a team on his back and carry it to postseason glory. On many campuses, says coach Mark Helfrich, the backup quarterback is the most popular player, the answer to any and all offensive problems. But in Eugene almost no one knows his name.

“People are always trying to come in to talk to Marcus, so I act as a buffer,” Lockie says. “It’s OK for me to be the bad guy sometimes, to play bodyguard, because they don’t know who I am. If we’re out at the mall, it’s rare that they’ll recognize me, but everyone recognizes him.”

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It’s a position many would despise. Yet because he has trailed Mariota all season, and watched him get pulled in so many directions his head spins, Lockie has come to see that the spotlight can be suffocating sometimes. “Being anonymous, I’m starting to realize, it’s not as bad as you think,” Lockie says.

When Mariota comes off the field, he goes first to Lockie, not Helfrich. It might seem strange to take advice from the guy who isn’t good enough to beat you out, but Lockie provides a crucial perspective: He wears a headset the entire game, and typically filters messages from Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost. “They don’t get mad at him very often,” Lockie laughs,” but I’ll get what’s important, put it in his language and we’ll work it out.” In Lockie, Mariota has a confidant and a defender, and another player who can empathize with a play gone wrong. But Lockie can also explain what he saw as a quarterback with a playing-field view, and describe it in a lexicon only Oregon quarterbacks speak. He’s invaluable, Mariota says, even if he’s invisible.

“He was my roommate, he’s one of my closest friends, he’s one of the people I’m around the most,” Mariota says. “He’s another set of eyes for me, and that helps me a lot. If a bad drive happens, he keeps my head in the game.”

Coming out of Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif., where he threw for 3,278 yards with 31 touchdowns as a senior in 2011, Lockie had one other scholarship offer, from San Diego State. But when the Ducks came calling with their flashy uniforms and up-tempo offense, Lockie committed almost immediately. “It was kinda one of those things where you always wanted to go to Oregon,” he says. “When they give you an actual scholarship, you’re locking in.”

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Helfrich says Lockie plays a hybrid role of doting father and protective big brother, always checking in on Mariota, and keeping him in check. Lockie comes up with a different nickname for Mariota almost every week -- the latest is “Cover Boy No. 4,” a reference to Mariota’s four appearances on the Sports Illustrated cover -- and shares Mariota’s love of studying the game. Helfrich and Frost praise Lockie for his football IQ and ability to pick up the scouting report quickly. He might not get a lot of reps, but in reality, he might not need them.

The Ducks’ offense has been decimated by injury this season -- they lost another player against Florida State when receiver Devon Allen hurt his knee returning the opening kickoff -- but Mariota has remained healthy. He is expected to leave early for the NFL, and then Lockie might be the man … or the job could go to another backup. In an era when many quarterbacks aren’t happy being relegated to the bench for even a redshirt year, Lockie has opted to bide his time. As a result, he has been asked "Why do you stay?" so many times he has lost count.

“Yeah, if I had gone to San Diego State, I’d probably be playing right now,” Lockie says. “I know that. But I’m the No. 2 quarterback for the No. 2 team in the country. It’s a pretty good deal.”

And yes, he adds with a sly smile, there are absolutely days he has outplayed Mariota in practice. They just don’t happen very often.

“Jeff, in his role, is as good as we could ask for,” Frost says. “He’s completely reliable, completely unselfish. He tells me how Marcus is feeling, goes in and executes when he has to. If we had to play Jeff in a game, I’d feel great. I think we have enough weapons around him that all we’d have to do is get the ball to those guys.”

Still, for as beloved as Lockie is in the Oregon locker room, the hope is he won’t have to go in and get the ball to everyone around him. The Ducks’ national title hopes hinge on the play of Mariota, the best player in school history who has lifted the program to new heights. Lockie’s turn will come this spring.

For now, playing the security guard, the security blanket and the backup is enough to juggle.