Dual-threat Mariota keys Oregon offense

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Marcus Mariota was the Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year in 2012.The 2013 college football season has the potential to be one of the greatest quarterback classes ever. Eight of the top 10 teams in last year’s final AP Poll return their starting quarterbacks, and every conference except the Big 12 returns either their first- or second-team quarterbacks from last season.

In preparation for the 2013 season, ESPN Stats & Info will take a deeper look at the top QBs entering the fall. Today we will look at Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.

A look back at 2012

A year ago, Mariota was battling Bryan Bennett for the starting quarterback nod. He finished the year as the Pac-12 offensive freshman of the year, breaking conference freshmen records for completion percentage and touchdown passes along the way.

What separated Mariota from his peers was his ability to use his feet and his decision making. Mariota joined Heisman winner Johnny Manziel as the only two players in FBS last year to average seven yards per rush and seven yards per pass attempt (min. 200 attempts).

This fall ESPN will unveil Total QBR for college, including past season results back to 2004. In that time frame, Mariota’s 2012 opponent-adjusted Total QBR was the highest single-season Total QBR by an Oregon quarterback.

As a result, Oregon's 2012 offense contributed more points to its winning margin (opponent adjusted offensive EPA) than any other Oregon offense during that time.

Most First-Quarter Touchdowns
BCS-AQ QBs Last Season

One of Mariota's toughest opponents last year was his own coach, Chip Kelly, and his reluctance to play him in the second half of games. Only 10 of Mariota's 38 total touchdowns came after halftime. His 16 first-quarter touchdowns were tied with Utah State's Chuckie Keeton for most in FBS last season.

What’s Ahead for 2013?

2013 brings a few changes for the Oregon football program. Kelly, the mastermind behind four straight BCS bowl appearances is gone. Also gone is fifth-year senior Kenjon Barner and his 2,000 yards of offense.

But Mariota's favorite target from a year ago returns in De'Anthony Thomas. Thomas will likely play a bigger role for the Ducks this year, and get more than the 10.5 touches a game he saw last year.

When targeting the speedy Thomas in 2012, Mariota was 45 for 55, his highest completion percentage among all of his receivers who caught at least 10 passes. The 55 passes averaged fewer than 5 yards of actual air distance, and 20 were thrown behind the line of scrimmage. Look for Thomas to get more of these short targets next season as he has averaged more than eight yards after the catch per reception in his career.

Play-Action TD Passes Last Season
Notable Returning FBS QBs

Barner's departure will hurt Mariota if Oregon cannot replicate the run threat he brought to Oregon’s offense. Mariota threw 25 of his 32 touchdown passes after a run fake, including nine touchdowns in his last four games. His 25 such touchdowns were the most among all BCS-AQ quarterbacks.

But don’t expect offensive coordinator-turned-head coach Mark Helfrich to abandon the running game either. Over the last two seasons, Oregon has had five players rush for more than 700 yards in a season (most in FBS), including Mariota last year.