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Enjoy the ride

UO's Marcus Mariota isn't listening to outside sources. He's only playing for his teammates and university


Photo Credit: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota is heeding the advice of fellow Hawaiian football player Manti Teo as the Ducks embark on their 2014 journey.EUGENE — While visiting his home state of Hawaii this summer, Marcus Mariota happened upon another Hawaiian who has dealt with much hype and publicity.

Manti Te’o, the intriguing ex-Notre Dame star now playing with the San Diego Chargers, gave some advice to the Oregon quarterback, who embarks on his junior season as a Heisman Trophy candidate and a leader of one of, perhaps, the country’s best teams. Te’o told him to enjoy the ride.

“He talked about the whole journey and experience,” says Mariota, who leads Oregon against South Dakota in the season-opening game Saturday at Autzen Stadium — and then against fellow top-10 team Michigan State on Sept. 6 at Autzen. Te’o didn’t necessarily tell Mariota anything he didn’t already know, but it came from the home-state person with whom he could identify.

“His greatest advice was go out there and play your game,” Mariota says. “Don’t worry about whatever other people have to say. Go out there and play for teammates and the university.”

Mariota just wants to play football. And, play with teammates, many of them friends.

Center Hroniss Grasu calls him a dear friend.

“I don’t like him,” Grasu says of his QB, “I love that dude. Love that guy. Marcus, I’ve learned so much from being around him, watching him, how he carries himself, handles everything. Even though he’s younger than me by like two years, I still look up to him, tremendously. I don’t know who wouldn’t, the way he handles all the hype that he gets and everything everyone talks about. So humble. Great kid.”

Darren Carrington, who is expected to be a top Mariota receiving target, calls him “The Captain.”

“He’s unreal,” the redshirt freshman says. “It’s a blessing to play with Marcus.”

Mariota says playing football with people he likes makes the game easier.

“To be able to build that chemistry amongst a team, it becomes one of those deals where you’re playing for the guy to the left and right of you,” he says. “At Oregon, being a part of the culture they’ve built, it’s something special. It’s not normal to be part of a team like that. It’s truly special.”

The dual-threat Mariota has done many good things for the Ducks, including leading them to a 23-3 record as a starting quarterback. He has thrown for 6,342 yards and 63 touchdowns (with only 10 picks) and rushed for 1,467 yards and 14 scores.

But Stanford has beaten Mariota and the Ducks twice, basically preventing Oregon from playing for the Pac-12 title — or national title. Clearly, Mariota has his eyes on the big prize.

“It’s the No. 1 goal,” he says, of the national championship. “We want to be able to come out of the conference this year — we haven’t been able to do that the past couple years — and be a part of the national playoff picture. We’re really motivated. This is one of the best fall camps that I’ve been part of since I’ve gotten here. Honestly, we’re anxious to get out there and play.”

Photo Credit: COURTESY OF MICHAEL WORKMAN - Marcus Mariota says the chemistry and culture at the University of Oregon is something special.The Ducks have some offensive weapons, including running backs Byron Marshall, Thomas Tyner and true freshman Royce Freeman, some unproven but talented receivers and tight ends and a veteran offensive line led by center Grasu — albeit without injured left tackle Tyler Johnstone.

Mariota offers his thoughts on a variety of offense-related subjects:

• Receivers — “They’re very explosive. Darren Carrington and Devon Allen are guys who can really go up and get it. Dwayne Stanford is one of those big targets that’ll be used alongside a Chance Allen. We have a lot of talent out there; these guys are very excited to see some of their first real live action.”

• Leaning on the run game — “We’ll have to see. It’ll be a game plan thing. We’re very comfortable — we have three running backs who are capable of doing whatever we need them to do.”

• The phenom Freeman — “That kid has done an unbelievable job since he’s gotten here. He’s taken it upon himself to learn pass protection, where to line up in certain formations. This kid, if he continues to do what he’s doing, he’ll be special. The kid, for his size, has some unreal speed. We’re setting high expectations for him, but I think he’ll live up to them, he’s that type of player.”

• Playing without Johnstone — “We’ve come to base our culture on the next guy up. Whoever the left tackle is, it doesn’t matter. That guy has to step up and make a play. He’s going to do that. I don’t see much change.”

• New left tackle Andre Yruretagoyena — “He’s done a good job of just doing his job, his assignment, to the best of his abilities. We understand he’s the next guy up, he’s going to do the best for us, we have the utmost confidence in him.”

• Chemistry with Grasu — “He’s a great friend of mine, we’ve built our relationship for a couple years. He’s an awesome guy. ... You see (his value) in the amount of passing yards and running yards and touchdowns — that’s from the offensive line and center. If we’re not able to communicate and be on the same page — it all starts up front. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to get much done.”

• Offensive improvement since Oregon’s one-touchdown Alamo Bowl — “We continue to push our tempo, push up front, understand our blocking schemes.”

Despite last year’s knee injury, Mariota doesn’t envision the UO coaches — or himself — limiting his action. He still anticipates running the ball. As a top NFL prospect, Mariota also will be watched as he throws the ball; he says his accuracy has improved.

“I’ve gotten better,” he says. “That consistency has definitely improved, and I’m going to continue to do my best.”

Much of Mariota’s strength lies in the intangibles. He has worked on vocal leadership, mainly raising his voice and being direct. It’s not second-nature, yet, but it’s getting better.

He refrains from calling the offense his; rather, it’s everybody’s.

Mariota hopes to ignore any Heisman hype or other notoriety and just play.

“I take care of what’s on the field and whatever comes with that,” he says. “To me, people can overhype pressure as an individual. I understand that I have so many resources to help and so many people around me that want the best, I can lean on them whenever I need to. ...

“I still get butterflies like any other player, I’m human. I just try to continue to be myself and see where that takes me.”