From the time Marcus Mariota was six years old he’s played football. Every time he's played on the field, trained in the weight room or thought about the game has culminated to this moment—the pre-draft window before the next stage of his career.
But this isn’t a waiting period for the Oregon Ducks' Heisman Trophy winner.
“It’s an opportunity to fulfill a dream,” Mariota tells Nike. “It’s an opportunity to go out there and measure up against the best players in the world. That’s hugely exciting, so I’m doing the hard work to make sure I take full advantage of my situation to make my family, friends and team proud.”
In the time between Oregon’s final game and the NFL draft on Apr. 30, Mariota has put a renewed focus on preparation—physically and mentally.
“I’m about focus on what’s going to make me better. Right now I’m working on strengthening some weaknesses from my college skill set and,” he says, “ultimately, turning those into strengths.”
The main emphasis has been on developing a quicker first step and upping his ability to accelerate. “I do a lot of bungee work to develop my fast-twitch muscles and be quicker to take a drop under center,” Mariota says. “Training hard with resistance develops my reactions and the way my body responds instinctually to what I’m seeing on the field.”
Mariota knows that speed is a key at the NFL level—but so is strength. As the native Hawaiian quarterback works to gain more weight, he knows it remains “critical that I carry that additional weight without losing any speed.” But not only will that weight help him in powering forward on offense, but also will better prepare the 6-4, 220-plus-pound quarterback to take NFL-sized hits.
Mariota worked with Ryan Flaherty, owner of Prolific Athletes in San Diego, to prepare for the combine and the NFL, focusing primarily on his strength-to-weight ratio. Flaherty says improving Mariota’s lower-body strength helped make his body as balanced as possible in order to up his strength when hitting the ground, which will make him quicker and faster, and help prevent injuries.
“When we first got him, he was fast, also quick,” Flaherty says. “But one thing Marcus really needed to learn was to be able to move efficiently other than straight ahead. Football is such a dynamic sport, especially the quarterback position, where you are moving laterally close to 50 percent of the game.
“Improving the strength in his base, his lower-body strength, was key for us and that’s been where I’ve seen him make the biggest strides.”
As Mariota built up his strength, Flaherty also had him putting a focus on acceleration and reaction. Building up the strength-to-weight ratio naturally improves quickness and speed and working on technical angles of the body helps with first-step acceleration. But as Mariota got stronger, he did so with a reactionary component.
“Reaction training is not only having to incorporate movement, but also processing information (whether reading numbers or doing math during a drill) because that’s what the position of quarterback is,” Flaherty says. “It allows us to help them get away from 300-pound defensive lineman or find the hole in the defense.”
Doing all this extra work isn’t foreign to Mariota. “Marcus is as hard of a worker as I’ve been around and he does not shy away, he actually asks for it,” says Flaherty, who has trained countless athletes in preparation for the NFL. “I think one thing that’s going to separate him from the rest is that his work ethic matches his talent.”
There’s a reason for that. Mariota has all the motivation he needs to succeed with the same foundation he has used since his time at Oregon. “I’m motivated by fulfilling a dream,” he says. “That’s all the motivation I need. This is an opportunity to take that childhood dream and run with it. I manage pressure by not worrying about any outside influence and by just focusing on yourself, what I need to take care of.
“I just always try to remember why I’m doing it. And who I’m doing it for. So there’s always a higher purpose to my training. My purpose is personal. I do it for my family, for where I come from and my friends. And if I can represent them well, to the best of my ability every single day, then I’m satisfied because I’ve done all I can do to make them proud.”
For Mariota, the next step in his football career all starts with his first step. A step he’s made stronger and faster ahead of the NFL draft.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, design and gear for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.