How exactly does somebody go about being better than the best to have ever played for a team? What if that person is the successor stepping into a starter’s role for the first time immediately replacing a legend who happens to be the best ever, with the expectation to be even better?
For as long as Chip Kelly is in Eugene, and possibly beyond that, the Oregon football program will be tied to the word, “offense.” Known for impressive offensive numbers during the Bellotti pro-set era, since switching to a spread under Kelly, the high-speed attack Oregon has brought to the west coast has expanded further than what was once thought possible, binding the concept of points and big plays to anything Duck football-related.
The brief legacy Coach Kelly has established in only three years as the head coach (and two more as offensive coordinator) has created a few legends in Oregon lore; of course there’s LaMichael James, who is regarded as the best player in school history, and still, that is an understatement to LaMichael’s talents that wove ever so perfectly into Kelly’s scheme.
Then there is the signal-caller, Darron Thomas, who is properly known as the best statistical quarterback in Oregon’s history, and a masterful manager of the no-huddle offense. Darron should forever be held amongst the legends of Oregon football, without a doubt. Certainly it should not be forgotten the production Kelly has exerted from his quarterbacks before Thomas, all with a wide-ranging array of talents, from the bulldozing runner that was Jeremiah Masoli to the sleek do-everything-with-flair approach that was Dennis Dixon’s senior campaign.
Even with the departure of the best two players for the greater part of a decade (if not all time, at least statistically), what if Oregon’s ceiling still hasn’t been reached? A cynic might say it has, the ceiling came crashing down against Auburn, and then LSU, and then Southern Cal last season. A more neutral person would be content with the unprecedented success Oregon’s scheme has brought. The optimist, otherwise known as nearly every Oregon fan, still believes there is more to torment defensive coordinators with in Coach Kelly’s playbook, leading to even greater success than the unprecedented levels already achieved the past three seasons.
To identify the limits of this Oregon offense, first the areas in need of improvement for an offense that has consistently been among the best in the country in all facets of the game needs to be recognized. Those concepts include interior and exterior running, screens, play-action, roll-out and drop-back passes. Well, the running game speaks for itself, inside-out, but if there was one small piece of the Oregon offense that has struggled ever so slightly, it has to be in the passing department.
Laying no blame on Darron Thomas, or the receivers who have outperformed nearly every unit similar to them, the passing offense has never felt overly dominant, or even a primary part of the offense. For as good as Darron was, and that’s good enough to make him one of the best in Oregon history, his talents were maximized during his time at the helm, thus, for lack of a better word, he limited the already unparalleled Oregon offense.
But how is that possible? Thomas won more games than any quarterback over the past two seasons, and directed the nation’s most dynamic offensive attack to near perfection. All cliche’s aside, the next Oregon quarterback will most likely be better at running the offense than Darron was, despite his nearly perfect efforts while at Oregon. There were grumblings from fans often about an occasional errant throw, or inability to break a long run, but what Thomas did within his skill set clearly sets him apart from nearly every Oregon quarterback in history.
This situation appears unique, but can best be compared with the fairly recent example of Chris Leak from the 2006 Florida Gators. Leak was simply a winner that season, leading the Gators to a national championship, despite the fervor surrounding his competition sitting in the wings, now regarded as one of the best college football players of all-time–Tim Tebow.
Despite Leak winning a national title, and posting a 13-1 record, the lasting memories (at least outside of Gainesville) from Meyer’s Florida years came from the Tebow era, who became the first sophomore in NCAA history to win the Heisman trophy. Leak was looked at as a placeholder, the best for the moment, but not the best on the team.
Much the same could have been said of Oregon fan reaction last year, when Thomas’ performances were often met with grumbles that the one waiting in the wings (Bryan Bennett) should have instead been the starter. Now going into the next season, much of the fan murmurs are about starting Marcus Mariota over Bennett, who has zero collegiate game experience, once again showing the quick reaction and fickle nature of fans.
Tebow’s style during his Heisman campaign resembled a man with his head on fire. His raw physical ability is what guided him to become the single most dangerous quarterback in the nation in roughly three months time. In his later years, though, Tebow became a more cautious, practical leader, and became the person and player that he is today, a more well-rounded player, albeit lacking in any supreme skill that sets him apart from all competition, except for the intangible ability to somehow win games.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bennett play similar to Tebow in his sophomore season: just going out there to score as many points as possible, and using his raw physical speed and arm strength to torment defenses all year. On the other hand, Mariota could offer the poise and efficiency of the senior Tebow immediately, making the Ducks just as dangerous.
Whoever it may be, the next Oregon quarterback will be expected to do great things, and take the next step in the development of Chip Kelly’s masterpiece.
It feels almost naive to say that a freshman or a sophomore QB, both with nearly zero game experience, can surpass Thomas right away. Then again, Thomas was in a heated battle for the starting spot alongside Nate Costa (just as Bennett and Mariota are) before assuming the starter’s role, and despite nearly zero experience before that, led the Ducks to the peak of college football’s vast landscape.
As Leak’s era was taken over by Tebow, perhaps the Bennett/Mariota era will overshadow the Thomas era soon. The next step in the Oregon offense not only exists, it can be taken by a brand new leader some time in the next season.