In June 2010, a pair of overlooked quarterback recruits committed to the Oregon Ducks within three days of each other. Two years later, they have taken the college football world by storm.
In August, few outside of College Station, Texas, had heard of Johnny Manziel. Outside of Eugene, Ore., even fewer knew about Marcus Mariota. Now in November, Manziel is generating Heisman buzz after a historic upset of Alabama, while Mariota is piloting a Ducks squad that seems destined for the BCS title game.
Manziel and Mariota committed to the Ducks within days of attending Oregon's summer camp, but neither raised so much as an eyebrow. Instead, Ducks fans were more focused on Jerrard Randall, a quarterback rated No. 126 in the 2011 ESPN 150 from Florida who committed in mid-June. Randall was the No. 8 QB in the class, while Manziel was No. 39. Mariota? He was ranked 123rd and had only a Memphis offer before the Ducks came calling.
ESPN's National Director of Recruiting, Tom Luginbill, said in 2011 that Mariota was raw but had the potential to grow as a quarterback.
"He is the perfect example of the inexact science that evaluating 16-year-olds truly is," Luginbill said. "It can be easy to focus on the ESPN 150 or ESPN 300, but the reality is that players 301-1,000 are what make up most college rosters. They are the hardest to project and, in Mariota's case, even hard to find."
It’s hard to blame the scouts and coaches for missing Mariota. As a sophomore and junior, he had to fight for playing time with Jeremy Higgins, now a quarterback at Hawaii.
“He learned how to compete,” Honolulu St. Louis School quarterbacks coach Vinnie Passas said. “I think that’s why when he got to Oregon and had to compete, he was ready to go. No moment is too big for him.”
As a senior, the job was his, and Mariota excelled. Still, his signing with the Ducks didn’t really register with fans. Neither did Manziel’s switch to Texas A&M. Instead, Oregon fans were much more concerned when Randall didn’t put pen to paper. All of a sudden, the Ducks went from having three quarterbacks in the fold to having one. And that one was a lanky, one-year starter who looked more like a wide receiver than a quarterback.
Oregon coach Chip Kelly has called Mariota the perfect fit for the Ducks offense. On signing day in 2011, he was easily overlooked. De’Anthony Thomas had flipped from USC to Oregon. Thomas was the capper to a class that featured five ESPN 150 players -- and eight who played in either the Under Armour or U.S. Army All-American games -- and was the best class on paper in school history.
"He's a great athlete first and foremost," Kelly said of Mariota in 2011. "I mean, you watch him on tape, and he can really, really run. That speed's not a lie. Some kids inflate their 40 times, but you can see that he is that fast. They had a really good quarterback at St. Louis last year, so he split time and didn't have much film. We loved what we saw on film. It was just a matter of getting him in person."
Kelly will not offer a quarterback unless he has seen him throw in person. After Mariota arrived on campus for the Ducks summer camp, the coach knew he had a hidden gem.
"Once we saw him in person, he was everything we thought he would be,” Kelly said. “He started to blow up his senior year, and he would've had a lot more offers had he not already been committed to us."
But it would be hard for even Kelly to have imagined a season like this. So how has an unheralded recruit from a non-traditional football state like Hawaii been able to master Oregon’s high-octane offense under intense scrutiny?
“When the lights come on, he's in the same state of mind as he is when he's at church,” Passas said. “He's at peace inside, and his teammates can feel that. Chip Kelly could feel it from watching his tape, and that's why he has been so successful despite the fact that he's on national TV every week, leading the best team in the country."