EUGENE, Ore. -- While Oregon quarterback Darron Thomas' decision to enter the NFL draft a year early shocked many outside the football program, it didn't surprise many of those close to him, including his fellow Ducks quarterbacks. Thomas had brought up the possibility a number of times throughout the year, so backup Bryan Bennett and talented true freshman Marcus Mariota knew he was eyeballing a potential departure.
Though the news was greeted with more than a few gasps, many Ducks fans didn't spice their surprise with disappointment. Some had felt that Bennett -- despite Thomas' record-setting numbers -- was a better quarterback, or at least that he had more upside. They had seen what he'd done in limited action in 2011, coming off the bench in a big win over Arizona State and a start at Colorado.
Inside the program, not only was it not a big surprise, it also wasn't viewed as a perfunctory passing of the torch. There was a mystery man, an X factor, with whom fans and media weren't terribly familiar because Oregon has shut down access to practices: true freshman Marcus Mariota.
Mariota, a 6-foot-4, 200-pounder out of St. Louis High School in Honolulu, had shown enough in one impressive redshirt year to be viewed by his coaches and teammates as a legitimate threat to win the job.
"When DT left, I told Brian, 'You got to work for it. Marcus Mariota is a very good quarterback,'" said center Hroniss Grasu, Bennett's roommate and good friend. "It's going to be a great competition."
What you keep hearing when you ask players and coaches about Bennett and Mariota is that they are notably similar. Both are tall and fairly thin -- Bennett is 6-3, 205 pounds. Both are athletic and comfortable running an option attack. Both are capable passers. Both have low-key personalities.
"We feel real confident as a staff in our quarterback situation," said coach Chip Kelly, whose Ducks begin spring practices Tuesday. "They just haven't played significant amounts. I'm real confident in whoever ends up out of those guys pulling the trigger that we'll have a pretty good one."
There's good reason for that. Since Kelly arrived as the Ducks' offensive coordinator in 2007, Oregon has been good to outstanding at the position. He transformed Dennis Dixon from a guy who threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2006 to a leading Heisman Trophy candidate before he got hurt. He made Jeremiah Masoli, an unknown summer junior college transfer, into a swashbuckling, dual-threat force. And under his tutelage, Thomas ended up throwing more TD passes than any previous Ducks QB.
Kelly insists he has no preconceptions: "Our program is founded on competition," he said. Of course, many coaches throw the "competition" coaching platitude around. What actually happens on the depth chart demonstrates that most still favor seniority, particularly at QB. Coaches believe in the value of experience and they are more comfortable with players with whom they've built up years of familiarity. To win a job, a younger player must decisively demonstrate superiority.
But Kelly has shown he's not like that, and we need look no further than the last quarterback competition in Eugene between senior Nate Costa and Thomas, then a sophomore.
Costa was the feel-good story after Masoli's ugly departure. He was the one-time spread-option prodigy who'd been done in by bad knees, but heading into 2010 spring practices he was again healthy and ready to lead the Ducks with his moxie and still substantial skills. Thomas was a skinny guy from Houston with an odd throwing motion who lacked Costa's polish.
Just about everyone thought Costa would win the job, perhaps even by the end of spring practices. But a funny thing happened: Thomas was announced as the starter in late August.
Bennett was a true freshman observer of that competition, at least the fall camp portion. And, just as Thomas didn't surprise him when he opted to leave for the NFL, he also didn't surprise Bennett when he won the job.
"At first, I saw Nate as the older, senior, who kind of took control more," Bennett said. "I think it could have gone either way, but I wasn't too surprised. I thought it kind of started to lean towards Darron at the end."
Fair to say Bennett knows he can't expect his limited experience -- 369 yards passing, six touchdowns, no interceptions -- to give him a substantial advantage, at least not as baubles that will impress Kelly and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. But that experience could become a foundation or launching point that helps Bennett develop faster, which could provide a competitive advantage. The game should be slower to him than to Mariota. He knows how it feels when the lights are on for real, and how his teammates and coaches react. He knows how to prepare as a starter. And he saw how Thomas won the job over Costa.
"Since Darron left, I have taken it on myself to present myself as a leader of this team," Bennett said. "I would like to be the starting quarterback of this team. In my mind, I'm going to continue to tell myself that I need to get better and worry about the things I can control. It could come down neck-and-neck. It could be decided in spring ball. I really don't know. It's more a competition with myself, because I can control what I do. I can't control what [Mariota] does."
When fellow Ducks talk about Mariota, they talk about how quickly he's picked up the offense. Mariota, in a revealing moment of humility that supports that very point, said it took him "a week" -- a whole week! -- to feel comfortable running the offense in fall camp his freshman year.
"I feel we are going in evenly," Mariota said. "Bryan is a very good player. He's been in this system for a while now. I'm just going to take it day by day. We both are. And whoever wins, we'll be rooting for each other."
Mariota adds: "If Bryan wins the job, I will be behind him 100 percent. This is a team thing."
This "team" thing has changed at Oregon. Three years ago, the Ducks starting QB was only of local, perhaps regional interest. After three consecutive conference titles, it's now a position of national import. The last three Ducks QBs have been in Rose Bowl and national title hunts.
The expectations aren't any lower in 2012, even with Thomas' surprising/not-so-surprising decision.
"I know whoever the quarterback is, he will do a great job," Grasu said. "Hopefully even better than last season. I know last season was a great season, but I think with the team we've got coming back everywhere else, we can be very successful."