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Marcus Mariota can run but ...

MARCUS MARIOTA appreciates the irony.

The Oregon Ducks quarterback turned down the 2014 NFL draft to return for a fourth season in Eugene. Why? A pile of reasons, really.

He wants to win a Pac-12 championship, something the team hasn't done on his watch. He wants to lead the Ducks to 12 wins, which they failed to reach in 2013 -- the first time in four seasons they fell short. He wants to helm Oregon to a slot in the inaugural College Football Playoff, giving the school its first shot at a national title since its heartbreaker BCS championship loss to Auburn in 2010.

And he really wants to earn his college degree. Enter the irony.

"I'm really interested in sports medicine," Mariota explained during one of a handful of summertime media appearances, his polite, gentle voice barely moving the meter on the device recording him. "I was able to sort of intern with the sports medicine department at the university, to get a lot of insight about what that kind of work entails."

Like how to repair a dinged up medial collateral ligament?

"Yeah," he laughs, reaching down to rub his left knee. "Like that."

It was that pesky MCL, hurt during a 42-14 romp of then-No. 12 UCLA, that helped derail the Ducks' 2013 season. The injury forced him into a knee brace. And that knee brace spelled trouble for the QB's dual-threat game. In the season's first seven contests, he averaged 70 rushing yards per outing. In the two games after UCLA -- at Stanford and at home against Utah -- he ran for minus-34 yards. Then Mariota, who hadn't thrown a pick all year, gave up two interceptions against Arizona. Oregon lost two of those three and had to settle for the Alamo Bowl. But even a 30-7 rout over Texas couldn't lessen the sting of a disheartening finish: It was the Ducks' first non-BCS bowl berth in five years.

"Losing two games really hurt," Mariota admits. "We're fortunate enough to be involved with a program where that doesn't happen very often. And to know that we weren't really able to play at full strength, you do have that feeling of unfinished business. Especially against certain teams."

He won't name names. That's not Mariota's style. But any Oregon fan will gladly fill in those blanks. Sure, he could be talking about avenging the Ducks' stunning 42-16 loss at Arizona last November. But he's more than likely thinking about Stanford. Mariota's racked up 23 wins as Oregon's two-year starter, but he's 0-2 against his Pac-12 North rival. So, yeah, you can add "Beat the Cardinal" to that list of reasons he's back in green and yellow.

"That game is so far off," he dodges, pointing to Nov. 1, when Stanford will travel to Eugene. That's the game many already think will determine the Pac-12 North -- and the entire conference race. "We have a lot to work through before we get to that game."

For starters, there's the Week 2 visit from Michigan State, a Thursday night revenge game against Arizona on Oct. 2, and an Oct. 11 road trip to UCLA, the preseason favorite to win the Pac-12 South.

"The schedule is not easy," Mariota says. "It never is in the Pac-12. But when we say we have a lot to work through, the schedule isn't really what we're talking about. We have to work on our game before we worry about the actual games. Do you understand what I am trying to say?"

Mark Helfrich, Oregon's second-year coach, does, after spending his offseason hearing all about the Ducks' "disappointing" 2013 season. (They finished 11-2 and ranked No. 9 in the nation.) Helfrich knows he must get an inexperienced group of receivers up to speed to give Mariota the targets he needs. He also points to the challenge of Oregon's first season in eons without defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti, looking to shore up a bend-but-don't-break D that at times bent too far to give Mariota's offense much relief.

NFL scouts also nod their heads in agreement with Mariota's "a lot to work through" analysis. They love Mariota's 6-foot-4, 215-pound frame, but want proof that he isn't injury-prone. They covet his running ability, but want him to tuck the ball more. They respect his football acumen and low "knucklehead factor" off the field, but they nearly all contend he needs to fine-tune his footwork and show he has the arm strength to go with the accuracy they're already salivating over (31 TD passes versus four INTs in 2013).

For now, though, Mariota doesn't want to talk about the NFL. Or Arizona. Or Stanford. In fact, he really doesn't want to talk about much of anything. He's not being rude. In fact, it's quite the opposite. He just wants to lay low as long as he can. That's why Mariota politely declined a tidal wave of media requests this summer, electing instead to go home to Honolulu and spend time with his family. Now that he's back in Eugene, he's stuck to his assigned media times, as he will be all season, choosing to remain "just one of the guys and a true teammate."

When classes begin, he's only taking two, yoga and golf. He's carried 20-hour schedules for three years, including last football season. Yoga and golf might sound like a punchline, but those are all the credits he has remaining to earn his diploma this December, after only three and a half years -- with a 3.15 GPA.

Helfrich, for one, admires his leader's work ethic and low-key approach. "If everything happens for us this season that we think can happen, then we all know the attention that comes with that, especially for Marcus," he says. "But until that happens, heck, even when it does happen, he'll still just be Marcus. He just wants to play football. All that other stuff, Heisman talk, he appreciates it all so much. But hype isn't really his style."

Oh yeah, the Heisman! Add that to the list of reasons he's returning to play at Autzen Stadium, taking on South Dakota next Saturday. Just don't bother asking Mariota about it.

"If we win games, those other things -- awards and all of that -- will take care of themselves," he says. "We just need to do our job and win games and have some fun and enjoy it all. The attention that comes with it, we'll try to enjoy that, too."

He's not totally convincing. But he knows the attention can't be stopped, and that the scrutiny will only intensify once he gets to the pros. The spotlight won't go away until he goes away from the playing field. Then, perhaps, he can retire to the one place in the football stadium where the cameras never follow, putting his Oregon diploma to work back in the trainer's room.