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Marcus Mariota's mental mastery drives Ducks offense

EUGENE, Ore. -- Marcus Mariota defies standard definition, so don't view him through such a primitive lens.

Change your settings before it's too late. Mariota is best enjoyed in high definition, and not just because of the Technicolor uniforms he and his Oregon teammates wear in games.

Mariota's mental mastery of Oregon's offense is becoming once-in-a-generation type stuff. The Ducks junior is functioning on a level rarely seen among college quarterbacks, a plane that has coach Mark Helfrich describing him like a post-doc student, enrolled in "Quarterback 303" or "Mariota 505."

Mariota doesn't fit the sometimes significant, somewhat meatball-y image of a tomato-faced quarterback spewing fire and passion with neck veins bulging and, often, mixed results (hello, Philip Rivers). He can lead with emotion -- more on that later -- but it's not his secret sauce.

The numbers illustrate Mariota's complete command of Oregon's offense.

Season: 26 touchdown passes, two interceptions, an FBS-leading 187.2 quarterback rating, 10.2 yards per pass attempt (second in FBS), 68.1 completion percentage, 5.8 yards per rush, seven rushing touchdowns.

Career: 89 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions, team-record 644 completions, 66.4 completion percentage, 171.2 quarterback rating, 31-4 record as Oregon's starter and 10,760 yards of offense.

His career QBR of 88.4 is the second highest among players in the past 10 seasons, just ahead of Heisman Trophy winners Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston and just behind Cam Newton, another Heisman recipient.

"He's freakishly smart, especially when it comes to football," Ducks offensive coordinator Scott Frost told ESPN.com. "He sees things and processes things so quickly that he just doesn't make a ton of mistakes."

Mariota's mistakes also underscore his advanced approach to the game. Frost attributes most interceptions to two primary causes: bad eyes and getting flustered under pressure.

Mariota's interceptions stem from overthinking, but not in the standard sense. Helfrich calls it "thinking along with the route," which is fine as long as the route is run correctly.

But if Mariota's intended target veers off course or loses leverage, Mariota course corrects by still throwing on time and on target, when the right throw would be to the sideline benches.

"He knows what that guy's supposed to be doing," Helfrich said, "and almost tries to will it back. If the guy's running the wrong route, just throw it away."

Mariota's second-quarter interception Oct. 24 against Cal snapped a streak of 253 attempts without a pick, the second longest in Pac-12 history behind a run of 353 attempts set by, yep, Mariota.

"I was giving him crap, like, 'I'm so happy you threw that because of this elephant in the room,'" Helfrich said, before adding, "Not really, and it was a mental mistake."

Oregon can live with such mistakes because they happen so infrequently, and because Mariota's mind is normally such an asset. It is Frost's and Helfrich's jobs to teach quarterbacks about coverages, how to anticipate blitzes and how personnel fits a particular play.

But they can only do so much to help their players absorb the information. Mariota makes it easy for them.

"You don't even have to draw it up," Helfrich said. "You can just talk about it and he gets it. That's such a huge deal for that quarterback to be able to think about it over and over again without having to watch it, or even without having to do it. Because that's a thousand reps you can have without wear and tear of playing anybody."

Mariota processes at 5G speed, which helps when he's under duress. "Unflappable," one Pac-12 assistant described him.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Mariota ranks second among Power 5 quarterbacks in completion percentage against the blitz this season (76.5). He's seventh in yards per attempt against the blitz (10.4) and third in percentage of passes resulting in touchdowns against pressure (17.6).

"I don't see his blood pressure going up," Frost said. "When he's in there, he stays calm and executes."

But Mariota's calmness and kindness has been interpreted by some as a drawback. Is he too chill to lead an NFL locker room? After Oregon's 45-16 win against Stanford on Saturday, Mariota was asked if he's too nice.

"That's people's opinions," he said. "When it's all said and done, I believe that my teammates will know who I am and play for me, and that's all you can ask for."

It's all that matters right now. Mariota is a more cerebral quarterback, and, as Helfrich often says, Oregon's quarterbacks don't have that "look-you-in-the-eye moment in the huddle" because the Ducks don't huddle.

But he also has evolved from the high school kid so quiet during an Oregon camp that half the staff wasn't sold on him, preferring his polar opposite, Manziel.

"When it comes to competition, he's as cutthroat as anybody," Frost said. "Marcus is at a place where he's been the front-runner for being the first quarterback [drafted]. Any time you're that guy, there's more scrutiny.

"They're trying to find something wrong with him."

Let them nitpick. It's their jobs.

The rest of us should appreciate a player who doesn't come around very often at the college level, one with a strong arm, nimble feet and, most important, a beautiful mind.