In 2014, Ducks may need a backup qb for something more than sign duty

Jeff Lockie appeared in 9 games last year and Jake Rodrigues 7, and neither had a moment or a series that made you say, that guy is the quarterback of the future.

Rodrigues came closest. On his first carry from scrimmage against Nicholls State, he ran a perfectly executed Zone-Read keep, scooting for 28 yards around the right side. He finished the drive with a 23-yard scoring to Chance Allen, a nice bit of work in a laugher. The Ducks won 66-3, and by that time the remaining fans were paying more attention to the crowd-surfing Duck and a beach ball.

Wildcat whiz: Jake Rodrigues was a four-star recruit and Elite 11 finalist as a high schooler, but a broken leg suffered in the last game of his senior year has slowed his progress as a collegian.

Rodrigues came in against Colorado a few weeks later and added to the slim resume with another sharp throw, again to Allen, a 37-yard post pattern zipped into a window between two defenders. As rookie quarterbacks are wont to do he followed that play up with a poor one: after the Ducks got down to the four with a couple of first downs on the ground, the redshirt freshman with the rocket arm tried to squeeze another ball into an even tighter window in the back of the end zone, throwing it directly to Colorado defensive back Greg Henderson.

Colorado was the most extended look at both quarterbacks in a live situation, and it wasn’t encouraging, as badly directed as Snakes on a Plane. They alternated in 6 series after Marcus Mariota sat down with a 57-16 lead midway through the third quarter. Lockie threw an interception at the end of the third quarter and Rodrigues threw his at the start of the fourth, both to Henderson, and after that it was pretty much zone read right and zone read left.

The jury is still out at backup quarterback, and the day may soon come when the Ducks need a quick and decisive verdict.

Their progress for the season was so uneven that by game eight against Stanford, the Oregon coaches still felt Mariota was their best option even when (Scott Frost’s words) “he could barely walk midway through the week.” The sophomore from Hawaii did a courageous job, but didn’t have his A game against either Stanford or Arizona, fumbling twice in each game, severely limited in his mobility, a serious handicap for a guy with 4.5 speed.

Neither Lockie or Rodrigues have 4.5 speed. Few quarterbacks do. Mariota ran brilliantly again in the Alamo Bowl but had intermittent chin strap issues with the Longhorns ripping at his helmet on every carry. The Ducks had to call on Lockie to take over with the Quack Attack in the scoring zone, and both emergency relief efforts were a disaster. The first came early in the first quarter, and with second and 13 on the 15, Oregon got a false start on the first play and a botched handoff with a six-yard loss on the second, Lockie falling on the ball on the 26. When Mariota hustled back in it was third and 24. He scrambled for 18 yards, and Matt Wogan wound up kicking a field goal for a 10-0 lead.

It was the first time either of the number two quarterbacks had been called on in a critical situation, and the youngster from Alamo, California had a disastrous pair of plays that sent the Twitterverse howling about Oregon’s future at qb. Probably the toughest situation for a young quarterback to handle, coming in cold against a quick front four, the Ted Hendricks Award winner on his blind side.

For the season Lockie completed 8-13 passes for 57 yards, ran 5 times for 22 yards and a touchdown. Part of the problem for both of the backups is that in most of their appearances, they were reduced chiefly to handing off in with the game out of reach, halting drives behind the second-team offensive line in half-empty stadiums. Each looked good in the Spring Game a year ago but that was wearing a read jersey against a patchwork defense.

In year two on the varsity there may come a time, a play, a series, a quarter or a game, where one of them has to play with the season on the line, and whoever gets the nod has to respond better than Lockie did in San Antonio. Somehow they have to be ready, instantly and constantly ready, because a running quarterback takes a risk on every snap, regardless of how fast he is. The Ducks needed five quarterbacks to complete the season in 2007 and 2008. Nate Costa finished the Washington State game in 2010, and Bryan Bennett won a pair of games in 2011 when Darron Thomas suffered a knee injury. So far Mariota has started every game of his career, but he started a couple on one leg.

After defensive tackle, a reliable backup quarterback might be Oregon’s biggest concern going in 2014, a year when the Ducks are among the favorites for the national championship. Over the spring and summer, one of the understudies has to take the job by the winged shirt collar and claim it in an assertive way.

Each are blessed in that with Oregon’s legendary practice pace, they get more looks in practice than a typical backup. Mark Helfrich explained last season that in addition to running more reps than they do at Alabama or Arkansas, Oregon typically splits practice snaps 60-40 rather than 80-20 or 90-10, the standard in most pro-style operations.

In fall camp graduate assistant Costa told Andrew Greif of the Oregonian, “I’d say Jeff Lockie is more of your cerebral quarterback, focused in on making great decisions. Jake has more an ability to make plays with his feet and scramble around. I couldn’t handicap the race because it’s so close.”

By November the competition was no clearer. Scott Frost spoke to Justin Wise of the Oregon Daily Emerald and said, “It’s 2A and 2B right now. I don’t think either one of them have been put into a situation yet where we can truly judge them in a game so any judgement we have to make is from practice. I think Jeff would be the first one in, but both of them are going to play in any situation like that and we would let the play on the field dictate which guy is the guy.”

One of the guys needs to be the guy by the fall, because Oregon may need him next year. True freshman Morgan Mahalak is a strong candidate for the future, with great passing mechanics and a superb ability to process information (Super Bowl quarterback Trent Dilfer singled him out in the Elite 11 competition for his ability to grasp a pro style offense, learning a two-inch thick playbook and excelling on the Axon Simulator after just two days in camp) but it’s hard to think he can get ready for the PAC-12 in just one fall camp, and it would be risky to squander a year of eligibility on a handful of plays, should Mariota go down at any point in the 15-game campaign the Ducks hope to complete this season.

It’s still possible that one of the candidates may make the decision for them at the end of spring practice. It’s part of the reality of college football that quarterbacks want a starting opportunity. Backups at Cal, USC and Alabama have already transferred this year.

Bennett left the Ducks a year ago in January. In his first year as a starter at Southeaster Louisiana State he piloted the Lions to the semi-finals of the FCS playoffs, their first playoff appearance in school history. Bennett made the short list for the Walter Payton Award, emerging as one of the favorites going into his senior season. He’ll get a look in the NFL, something that would have been harder for him if he’d stayed at Oregon as a career backup.

For quarterbacks, football is all about opportunity, and making the most of it when your number is called. Find your helmet, son. You’re going in next play.

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