Marcus Mariota’s decision to return for his redshirt junior year with the Oregon Ducks showed the team his sense of commitment, and the way he broke the news — by word of mouth, not by news conference — impressed his teammates.
“I remember thinking that’s cool that Marcus didn’t make a big hoopla about it,” receiver Keanon Lowe said. “Because that’s not the type of person he is.”
Mariota revealed his decision to coach Mark Helfrich at last season’s team banquet.
“It was very Marcus-like,” Helfrich said. “He’s like, ‘Hey, Coach, I think I’m going to come back.’”
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Mariota’s center, Hroniss Grasu, also decided to forgo the NFL Draft.
“Those guys are just unbelievable teammates, and being a part of this group of guys is something that they don’t — they still don’t realize how special this is and how unique this team is in terms of just the chemistry and the bond that these guys have every day,” Helfrich said. “They come out with an unbelievable attitude, led significantly by those two guys, and then Marcus in particular is equal parts superstar and almost like an offensive lineman — I just go to work and go about my business.”
Mariota remembered Helfrich’s reaction at the news.
“He just shook my hand and said, ‘Let’s go do it again.’ For me, that says a lot about him and what he means to the program,” Mariota said. “He’s done so much for us as players. I was excited to come back for another year.”
Lowe said everyone realized what Mariota’s and Grasu’s returns meant.
“That was big. It was exciting for all of us,” he said. “We knew we could be a special team, and obviously, they did, too. I think that was definitely the jump-start of what we had going on.”
Grasu said there is a more personal atmosphere at Oregon now than under former coach Chip Kelly.
“He kind of made it like a high school team,” Grasu said of Helfrich, who took over in 2013 when Kelly went to the NFL. “With coach Kelly, it was more about business and playing football. With coach Helfrich, he really cares a lot about us as players, as people, and he truly loves us. I am not saying coach Kelly didn’t, but coach Helfrich just took it to another level.”
Grasu is a fifth-year senior, so he appreciates the heights the Ducks reached under Kelly.
“Everybody knows what Chip did to this program when he took over, and coach Helfrich hasn’t changed that much,” he said. “The only thing that he has changed is that he brought this team so much closer together.”
Defensive end Arik Armstead said communication was one of the Ducks’ problems on defense early in the season.
“We weren’t communicating the way we needed to. We weren’t getting aligned the way we needed to,” he said. “Getting lined up and communicating is the first thing you have to do before you do anything else. If you don’t get that taken care of right away, that can cause you problems.”
Armstead called the Arizona loss a turning point, particularly in the way the players reacted.
“Going through adversity changes you,” he said. “People getting hurt, people stepping up, freshmen playing — you never know what’s going to happen through the course of a season. I think we’re hitting our stride going into this game.”
Mariota, newly committed to Oregon as a high school senior in Hawaii, had to scramble to watch the January 2011 national championship game between Oregon and Auburn because of a power outage.
“Me and a few buddies, we got excused from school to watch the game,” he said. “To make a long story short, the power went out at my house. We had to go all over the place to find the game. When we finally did, we were able to catch the game in the second half.”
Oregon lost 22-19 but has returned to the national title game for the first time since.
“To see that, watch Oregon play in it — and unfortunately lose it, that was tough — but it was fun to watch that game,” Mariota said. “Now we’re back in the picture. It’s just exciting.”
Nose tackle Alex Balducci doesn’t remember when Oregon was a struggling program. But he knows people who do.
“I’ve always seen Oregon as a good team, but my parents talk about when it wasn’t — what the program used to be,” he said. “I’m glad to be a part of it now.”
Oregon has had a winning record every season since 1994. Before that, the Ducks had only seven winning seasons in the previous 29 years.
“I was born in ’94, so I think they’ve been pretty good year after year,” Balducci said. “I watched them in middle school when they had Dennis Dixon and Jonathan Stewart.”
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7760