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Mariota takes Ducks' spring game in stride

EUGENE -- If you want to engage Marcus Mariota in conversation, the best subject is not himself.

As comfortable as Oregon's sophomore-to-be quarterback is on the football field, he's a bit ill at ease talking about No. 8 in the program, No. 1 in the Ducks' hearts.

I caught up with Mariota after Oregon's spring game Saturday at Autzen Stadium, after the 6-4, 210-pound Hawaiian had met with the media masses at the Casanova Center.

Mariota's name will soon show up on a short list of 2013 Heisman Trophy candidates, right behind incumbent Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Has Mariota given the Heisman much thought?

"Honestly, not really," Mariota said in such a way that seemed convincing. "I'm more focused on getting these guys and myself ready for the fall."

The Aggies' Johnny Football once verbally committed to the Ducks -- ironically, at the same time as Mariota. Do the two know each other?

"A little bit," Mariota said. "I've met him several times through camps and some other things. He has done an awesome job, he really has."

When I asked if he feels any competition individually with Manziel, Mariota smiled.

"You know, that's out of my control," he said. "I'm sure people will compare us. It's fun sometimes to sit down and watch him. He does some pretty incredible things. He's an athlete. It's fun to watch him do his thing."

Ditto with Mariota, who engineered three touchdown drives in four series Saturday as Oregon's offense beat the defense 65-10 under the ill-advised Mark Helfrich Scoring System.

During the don't-you-dare-tackle-the-QB scrimmage, Mariota completed 13 of 15 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns. He looked poised, maybe even a tad more than he appeared as a redshirt freshman a year ago.

"I was a little more relaxed," he allowed. "Last year, the nerves were getting to me. The offense has been together for a year now. It was a chance to go out there and just show what we can do."

Mariota seems soft-spoken by nature. In his first season as head coach, Mariota will work with him on the leadership part of the quarterback position.

"Marcus did a really good job in the second quarter," Helfrich said. "Things were a little stagnant. His way of getting after (his teammates) and talking to them -- that's another step in his maturity."

Mariota said he didn't impart anything too heavy, speaking to understudies Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues about tuning out the sun-splashed throng of 36,588.

"I was just trying to get the guys go out there and play loose," he said. "A lot of the young guys were playing in front of 30, 40,000 people for the first time. If you open up and relax, don't have a worry, let it all hang out, you can play better. That's what I told Jeff and Jake."

Helfrich said he played Mariota four series because "he's a young guy, a sophomore who needs to continue developing. This was a great opportunity for him. he got better.

"He needs to be in that game environment and then flip over to coaching and leadership," the UO coach said. "When a really good player tells a teammate, 'I need you to do this,' that means more than a coach saying it."

Asked about any differences in the system run by Helfrich and predecessor Chip Kelly, Mariota said, "Not much. It is kind of just continuing the culture here. We're building off what we've done in the spring and taking that into fall."

Helfrich is as adept as Kelly at deflecting questions at times. The new coach has yet to reveal who will call plays in the fall, himself or offensive coordinator Scott Frost. Asked about that after the scrimmage, Helfrich said, "We're going to see. We'll sit down and talk about it over the next … there's no rush in that. If I call all the plays or Scott does, nobody's going to be hanging his head."

Helfrich joked that he was satisfied with what he saw on the culmination of spring practice, "other than the head coach's inept scoring system today."

I guess that means defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti won't be looking for another job after his troops allowed Oregon quarterbacks to combine for 50-for-65 passing for 577 and six TDs.

"Did Coach Helfrich tell you the score was a little lopsided?" Mariota asked with a wide grin.

Helfrich said the final count wasn't indicative of a poor performance by the defense.

"There were days this spring when it was exactly the other way," he said. "I wouldn't read too much into that."

Or maybe it's just that any defense -- even Oregon's -- is going to have problems with the Ducks' spread attack.

"Once you get in a rhythm, especially in this offense, it's kind of hard to stop it," Mariota said.

Asked for a second time by a TV type about his system that awarded the defense a few points -- not nearly enough, though -- for each stop, Helfrich cracked, "I just reviewed the film. The final score was actually 65-64. Do you feel better?"

Next year, the defense ought to get 10 points every time it keep the Ducks' "O" off the scoreboard. That might keep it a competitive contest.

But that's not the point. Saturday was a show day for Mariota and his teammates. And the show must go on, at least when it's as good as it was Saturday.

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