EUGENE, Ore. — Here’s all anyone needs to know about Oregon’s upcoming season: Marcus Mariota.
OK, maybe not entirely, but Mariota will certainly receive a better part of the attention each time Oregon takes the field this fall.
The junior quarterback could have bolted for the NFL this spring but he decided to stay with the Ducks, who were ranked as high as No. 2 last season before two losses took them out of contention for the national championship.
When asked what Mariota’s return means for the team, coach Mark Helfrich was succinct: “A ton.”
“On the field Marcus’s contribution and dynamic nature, and the way he plays, speaks for itself,” Helfrich said. “The behind the scenes thing is deciding to come back and his leadership. He’s 100 percent true. He’s 100 percent dedicated to the team, and 100 percent credible.”
Mariota and the Ducks are looking for redemption this season. Just don’t call it “unfinished business.”
“We want to take it and see how far we can go with it. We want to be part of the Pac-12 title game, we want to be part of the playoff picture,” he said. “For you to say it’s national championship or bust, that’s an outside opinion.”
Oregon has been picked to win not only the Pac-12 North but also the league championship by the media who cover the conference. The Ducks rank consistently in the top five in most preseason polls.
A top reason is Mariota, who averaged nearly 282 yards passing per game and threw for 31 touchdowns with only four interceptions last season. He also rushed for 715 yards and nine scores. His 4,380 yards of total offense set a school record.
He was a Heisman Trophy candidate until he partially torn the medial collateral ligament in his left knee nine games into the season. Oregon went on to fall to Stanford and Arizona and the Pac-12 North title went to the Cardinal. The Ducks finished 11-2 after a 30-7 victory over Texas in the Alamo Bowl.
Fully healed, Mariota is among nine offensive starters from a team that ranked No. 2 in the nation with an average of 565 yards a game and also averaged 45.5 points per game.
Here’s five things to know about Oregon for the upcoming season:
WHO STAYED, WHO LEFT: Top returnees include cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu and center Hroniss Grasu, who also could have gone early to the NFL but decided to stay another season. Also returning is Byron Marshall, the Ducks’ top running back last season with 1,038 yards and 14 touchdowns. Running back De’Anthony Thomas and cornerback Terrance Mitchell left school early, while wide receiver Josh Huff and defensive tackle Taylor Hart graduated. Wide receiver Bralon Addison is still recovering from surgery this spring to repair a torn ACL.
BIG TEST EARLY: After the season opener against South Dakota on Aug. 30, the Ducks will host defending Rose Bowl champion Michigan State. Both teams, which will likely be ranked, were anticipating the game as a measuring stick for where they stand on the national stage. “Win or lose, we’ll have a better understanding of how we need to improve after that game,” Spartans defensive lineman Shilique Calhoun said. “As a kid, I feel like everyone looks at Oregon, and you see the jerseys, and everyone loves all this. I really can’t wait to play there, because I want to see how it is.”
ALLEN’S SUMMER BREAK: Redshirt freshman receiver Devon Allen apparently takes Oregon’s reputation for speed very seriously. He placed second at the Pac-12 outdoor track and field championships in both the 400 and 110 hurdles, then won the 110 hurdles title at the NCAA track and field championships in 13.16, a meet record and the second-best collegiate time ever.
MARSHALL AND TYNER: A few years back LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner formed arguably the most explosive running back tandem in the nation. Could Byron Marshal and Thomas Tyner be the Ducks’ next super duo? Marshall ran for 1,038 yards last season, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Tyner ran for 711 yards, a school record for a true freshman.
DEFENSE: Oregon moved Don Pellum from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator when Nick Aliotti retired following the Alamo Bowl after 24 years with the Ducks. Pellum inherits five returning starters, including senior Ekpre-Olomu, the only returnee on the Ducks’ secondary. While it doesn’t get as much attention as Oregon’s flashy offense, the defense allowed just 204.5 yards passing per game, top in the league. Overall, the D ranked second in scoring in the Pac-12 last season with an average of 20.5 points allowed per game.