Top players to watch this spring: No. 4

The first day of Oregon’s spring practices is April 1 (no, we aren’t fooling you), which means we’ve got about three weeks until the Ducks take the field again. Last week we counted down the top five Oregon recruiting classes and this week we’re taking a look at the top five players to keep track of during spring ball.

No. 4: The guys who returned -- QB Marcus Mariota and CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu

2013 statistics:

  • Mariota: 3665 passing yards | 31 passing TD | 4 INT | 860 rushing yards | 9 rushing TD

  • Ekpre-Olomu: 84 tackles | 5 tackles for loss | 3 INT | 6 passes broken up | 9 passes defensed | 1 forced fumble

Why to watch them: It’s always interesting to keep an eye on players who decide to pass up millions in the NFL to return to college for another season. Obviously, it’s an individual decision that each player makes, but whether they attack the next season with a chip on their shoulders or have cold feet about their decision remains a question that can only be answered once they hit the field. However, chances are that it will be chips on their shoulders for both Mariota and Ekpre-Olomu.

It would be surprising if either had seasons that were anything less than incredibly impressive, and that progression is likely start to show itself this spring. And there will be a chance for each player to prove himself as both are going to be asked to do even more than they did last season. Mariota is losing his No. 1 and No. 3 receivers; Ekpre-Olomu will be the Ducks’ only returning starter in the secondary. That kind of pressure should help to push these players to the next level, as they’ll be the team leaders.

Ekpre-Olomu said he chose to return because he wanted to progress as not only a player but a person and that he had unfinished business with the Ducks. From an accolades standpoint. there’s not a lot that Ekpre-Olomu can do that he hasn’t already accomplished. He was named an All-American and a is a two-time first-team All-Pac-12 selection.

Mariota's name popped up in the Heisman Trophy conversation early in the season, but faded later. His numbers dropped a bit, the Ducks lost two games, Mariota was hobbled a bit by injury, and other players across the country put up bigger numbers. But this season, Mariota enters the season as one of the Heisman favorites, which is only helped by the fact that the Oregon’s offensive line returns talent and depth and is ready to protect him again.

But what’s notable about both of these players is how much they’ve progressed each season. Ekpre-Olomu’s tackle totals have gone from 34 to 63 to 84 in his three seasons. Meanwhile, Mariota's passing yardage totals gained nearly 1,000 yards from his freshman to sophomore seasons, and though his rushing yardage remained similar (752 yards as a freshman; 715 yards as a sophomore) he became more productive with his runs, finding the end zone with his feet nine times last season as opposed to five times as a freshman.

After this season, Ekpre-Olomu’s eligibility will run out; Mariota would have one more year. But if their seasons go as many expect they will, at this time next year both players could be first-round NFL draft prospects.

The countdown: