Rookies. They’re tied to many labels: inexperienced, tantalizing, perplexing, risky, unproven.
But poised? Such a word usually does not attach itself to a rookie -- a rookie quarterback, especially -- but Fernando Velasco, a guard for the Tennessee Titans, praised former Oregon Ducks star Marcus Mariota for his big-game experience and composure.
“The thing I love about him the most is, obviously he played in a lot of big games at Oregon, so the game -- the NFL -- is not too big for him,” Velasco said last month at Charles Johnson’s Sports Academy and Community Weekend. “(He’s) very cool, calm and collected. It seems like he handles pressures well.”
Mariota became the second-highest drafted player in Oregon history, one spot behind fellow quarterback George Shaw, who was drafted first overall by the Baltimore Colts in 1955. But in 2014, Mariota achieved an award no other Ducks player had earned before him: the Heisman Trophy.
In Oregon’s vaunted up-tempo system, Mariota’s dual-threat capabilities flourished as he passed for 4,454 yards, 42 touchdowns and four interceptions and rushed for 770 yards and 15 touchdowns. Mariota’s play vaulted Oregon into the inaugural College Football Playoff, where the Ducks breezed through Florida State and then lost to Ohio State 42-20 in the national championship game.
But the NFL is a different level. Oregon quarterbacks in the past have suffered difficulties with the transition to the NFL. Joey Harrington and Akili Smith were both drafted third overall in their respective drafts after successful collegiate careers but failed to register similar success at the pro level.
During Harrington’s eight-year career, he threw more interceptions (85) than touchdowns (79), and he suffered nearly twice as many losses as wins in his starts -- a 26-51 record. Smith played only 22 games during his four-year career in Cincinnati and recorded 2,212 yards, five touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Mariota will seek to buck the trend set by Harrington and Smith, but the learning curve for Mariota likely will be steeper than a quarterback who spent his collegiate career in a pro-style offense. Under the tutelage of current Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, the Oregon offensive philosophy was to put defenses on their heels with up-tempo play which included snapping the ball before the defense was set.
The Titans will not use a similar strategy. A major aspect of Mariota’s transition to the NFL will be learning the intricacies of NFL playbooks. That will be key to helping Tennessee rebound from a 2-14 season in 2014.
For Velasco, seeing Mariota in a Titans uniform is a comforting sight. He said Mariota can “absolutely” help the team this year.
“I like Marcus a lot,” Velasco said. “He’s a great player.”