Many outside of the Oregon program are expecting the Ducks to take a back seat to USC in 2012, due in large part to the loss of Darron Thomas at quarterback. Following Thomas out the door are his experience, leadership and toughness. The Ducks have a lot of talent waiting in the wings at the quarterback spot, but no one with significant experience.
While losing a record setting quarterback is always tough to recover from, the Ducks have had no problem doing so in the past. After Kellen Clemens came Dennis Dixon. After Dixon came Jeremiah Masoli. After Masoli, Thomas stepped in and took over the job. Now Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota battle to take over the Ducks’ offense.
The good news for the Ducks is that both candidates have a redshirt year under their belts that helped them adjust to the Oregon. More good news is that the skill level around them is at an all-time high. It should make for a fairly easy transition, especially with the favorable schedule in the first two months of the season.
Mariota walked away from the spring game as a crowd favorite and as a legitimate contender to take over for Thomas. While Mariota was impressive, Bennett wasn't too bad in his own right. What will likely happen is that the two will battle well into fall camp and will likely continue throughout the season, as there should be plenty of mop-up duty available.
Bryan Bennett: Bennett, a redshirt sophomore, is used to being thrust into the heat of battle and has the toughness and attitude of a linebacker. He was forced into an important game last year and held his own as the Ducks rolled past Arizona State on national television. The next week he started his first game in a Ducks uniform on the road at Colorado. Bennett was solid and showed some of his arsenal but the game was a blowout from the opening kickoff.
Bennett may have a greater upside than Mariota as he has a live arm to go with his freakish athleticism. The one thing that has always been an internal battle for Bennett is trying to remain in control. He has so much confidence in himself and his ability that he sometimes forces things as he tries to make too much happen all at once. Entering his third year in Eugene, Bennett has showed improvement in that department.
In eight appearances in 2011 Bennett fit in nicely with the Oregon offense as he went 25 of 46 for 369 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. He also carried the ball 23 times for 200 yards. Condense either of those stat lines into one game and Bennett looks like the next all-league quarterback for the Ducks.
Bennett's progression and development as a game manager will be a big factor in the quarterback battle.
Marcus Mariota: Mariota, a redshirt freshman from Honolulu, is one of those guys that doesn't look like he is a burner due to his long strides but once a speedy defensive back is trying to chase him down it is quickly apparent that he can run. Like Bennett, Mariota offers something Darron Thomas and Jeremiah Masoli could not. Breakaway ability.
The previous two Duck quarterbacks had some impressive runs in their careers but neither one of them could outrun an entire defense the way Bennett and Mariota can. Mariota proved as much in his breakout performance during the spring game when he took a keeper 82 yards for a score.
Mariota was smooth, steady and flashed big play ability in the spring game as he went 18 of 26 for 202 yards and a touchdown while also running for 99 yards and two scores. Given Mariota's steady demeanor and ability to match Bennett physically, the mental aspect could be the one thing that gives Mariota the edge.
Dustin Haines: A walk-on from South Eugene High, Haines has seen action in seven games over the past two seasons. He will likely play the role of third-string quarterback unless injuries to Bennett and Mariota force the Ducks into giving significant action to the remaining quarterbacks, where Rodrigues or Lockie would likely step in and have their redshirt removed.
The Ducks brought in two versatile quarterbacks from Northern California in the 2012 recruiting class to add depth and talent behind the two "veterans."
Jake Rodrigues: Rodrigues was a four-star recruit and and an Elite 11 finalist out of Whitney High in Rocklin, Calif.) He comes in with plenty of hype but also some concern. Rodrigues shattered his fibula and dislocated his ankle in a Whitney playoff game on a freak play. Rodrigues appears to be fully recovered from the injury and enrolled in school in time for spring ball.
The early impressions of Rodrigues are that he is a gamer who has the ability to run and pass at a high level. Being an early enrollee, Rodrigues will likely find himself ahead of fellow freshman Jeff Lockie on the depth chart. Rodrigues will likely utilize his redshirt year unless injuries force him into action.
Rodrigues was named his league's offensive MVP for the second consecutive year as a senior, while also garnering all-section accolades.
Jeff Lockie: Lockie might be the most overlooked recruit in the class of 2012 as he was rated a two-star prospect. The Ducks coaches saw something in him that made him the second quarterback in the class. Lockie comes in with the potential to be a star if he develops physically and learns the Oregon system. Lockie ran a more traditional offense in high school but was given the freedom to improvise due to his athletic ability.
Lockie was named First-Team All- EBAL in both 2010 and 2011. During his senior campaign, he was named the East Bay Athletic League Player of the Year over Wisconsin freshman Bart Houston (De La Salle) and Under Armour All-American and Cal freshman Zach Kline. Coaches at De La Salle were quoted as saying he was the toughest player to prepare for over the past two seasons.