Pac-12 QBs back: Mariota, Mannion carry Oregon, Oregon State, too

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ALONG I-5 IN WESTERN OREGON -- The assertion surprised Marcus Mariota. It wasn't quite blindside linebacker hit-quality, but close.

"I appreciate that," the Oregon quarterback told a reporter. "That's a nice compliment."

We'll reveal the flattery in a moment. For now, it's obvious Mariota hasn't fully considered his place in the college football universe. He's quiet. Too quiet for a prospective All-American and Heisman candidate. Way too quiet for a leader of Oregon's speedily surgical offense.

"I have to be more vocal," he said humbly.

Mariota is amazingly unaware of his superstar potential. His sensibilities still are rooted firmly on campus. His degree -- in General Science -- doesn't scream "typical football major." And he wants to use it for something other than a springboard to the NFL.

When asked about the current climate of student-athlete awareness, the redshirt junior says, no, he does not feel exploited.

"I just feel blessed," he said. "They're talking about paying college athletes. Looking behind me, these facilities. The resources we get around here, we'll never get this much help in our entire life."

That Hatfield-Dowlin Building behind him is a facility Death Star. This is where state of the art comes to be shamed. The weight room features wood so dense it neither floats nor burns. Turn a corner, there in a room are futuristic metallic green gliding ducks made to be flying in formation, one each for every Oregon All-American.

Forget punched-in codes, players are allowed into the building via biometric thumbprint.

Don't blame Mariota and the Ducks for the excess. This is all they know. They can't relate to a nearby program with a fraction of the budget, with less facilities and dimmer short-term prospects.

That's what makes the trip 47 miles north on I-5 from Eugene so refreshing. Up the road in Corvallis, is Mariota's counterpart -- Oregon State's Sean Mannion. Like Mariota, he applied for an NFL Draft evaluation following 2013. Like Mariota, he quickly decided to return to school. Like Mariota, he has already graduated. Like Mariota, he is the center of any success his team will achieve this season.

They are Pac-12 peers separated by less than 50 miles of lonely interstate. And yet they have never met. Not a huge surprise considering the rivalry between the schools but circumstances have congealed to form that compliment:

Is it blasphemous to suggest they may be the best pair of quarterbacks west of Jameis Winston? Mariota already has thanked you for thinking so. There may be arguments from UCLA (Brett Hundley) and Baylor (Bryce Petty) but there is probably no pair so talented, within such proximity of each other, playing in the same conference.

"You know, it's funny. I never actually have [met him]," Mannion said. "Most guys just meet after the game. But with the Civil War, it's such a mad house that I haven't got a chance.

"I've heard he's on awesome guy."

The six TDs of separation -- Mannion threw 37 touchdowns, Mariota 31 in 2013 -- is scheduled to end next month. The stranger quarterbacks are expected to be instructors at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La.

Call it an informal kickoff to a 2014 storyline. Historically, the Pac-12 is more relevant when it is loaded with returning quarterbacks. There are 10 starters back this year. Mannion is the country's leading returning passer (4,662). Washington State's Connor Halliday is second in that category. Cal's Jared Goff threw 530 times as a freshman for a program finding itself in Spike Dykes' first season.

That's three in the top 12 in passing and doesn't include Stanford's Kevin Hogan and UCLA's Hundley. The steady Hogan led the Cardinal to a fourth consecutive BCS bowl. Without much flash, he is 16-3 as a starter, 10-1 against ranked teams.

Mariota, though, is the conference's diamond standard. If not for his injured knee in 2013, the Ducks might have been in the national championship picture. Because of it, an 11-2 season was almost a letdown.

"From Stanford through Oregon State [during which the Ducks finished 3-2], he was grinding through trying to carry the team," tailback Byron Marshall said. "Right now, he looks like he did at the beginning of [last] season."

This year's quarterback group might be the Pac-12's best since 2004. That year USC won the national championship (since vacated by the BCS) with Matt Leinart. Cal finished in the top 10 with Aaron Rodgers. Arizona State's Andrew Walter threw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns.

In 2011, Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley and Darron Thomas all finished in the top 11 in pass efficiency playing for top 10 teams. Nick Foles ran the No. 3 passing offense at Arizona.

This season, Mariota's size, arm and mobility separate him from previous Oregon dual threats. He's more accurate than Thomas (66.7 percent to 59.8 percent in their careers) and is a bigger, smarter, more tactical runner. In each of his two seasons, Mariota has rushed for at least 700 yards.

The Ducks predictably struggled after Mariota was hit in the UCLA game last Oct. 26. A partially torn MCL in the left knee limited him to only 71 total rushing yards in four games before a bowl-game breakout against Texas (133 rushing) in the Alamo.

"He's at a point where his ball is too on the spot," Marshall says now. "Right when you turn you're head around, the ball is right there."

Sounds a lot like what you hear less than 50 miles away. Mannion helped make Brandin Cooks the Biletnikoff winner (best receiver) last season. With a limited running game, they were the two best Beaver weapons.

"Last offseason is when we got on point," Cooks said recently at the Beavers' training table before departing for the NFL. "We were throwing every day. We weren't playing around anymore.

"He's got a fast, hot, tight spiral. He can throw the deep ball. If I want to blow the top off he can get it there."

At that training table, Mannion can't get enough to eat. Even though he is 6-foot-6, 225 pounds, Mannion says he can't keep weight on. That concern sometimes means two dinners per night.

"I've got to eat constantly [and] not even gain weight," he said. "I lose weight."

It's imperative -- again -- the Beavers somehow try to keep pace with a rival that has lapped them in recent years. Sure, Oregon State is a Nike school but Oregon is a Phil Knight school.

"We don't make money here," said head coach Mike Riley, fresh from a noontime yoga session. "It's a constant battle to keep this going. We're probably the regular guy."

That's why Mannion's return is so important. If Mariota carries the memories of that dinged knee, Mannion winces when recalling 12 interceptions in his last five games. The Beavers, who started 6-1, finished 1-5.

Still ...

"When I first heard he might leave for the NFL, then it was like, 'Whoa, this might be real,' " Riley said.

It wasn't. Riley calmly put his quarterback in touch with former Beavers Derek Anderson and Matt Moore. He looped in old friend Bill Polian, the former Colts vice chairman.

"When you actually have something on paper that says they think you can do it and it's a realistic thing," Mannion said, "It's something to think about."

The senior has long since graduated with a degree in liberal studies. For now he's taking nine hours, including a badminton class where he has yet to beat his instructor.

"You definitely want to soak it in while you're here," Mannion said.

Mariota remains equally rooted in the campus experience. According to some 2013 draft projections, he could have been the first player taken. But in returning, he sounded a lot like Leinart in 2004. Coming off a Heisman-winning season, Leinart cited friends, family, teammates and college football as reasons to return for his senior year in 2005.

"I want to get my degree, that's a promise I made to my mom," Mariota said. "You get to be a kid, really."

There are subtle indicators of that expected pro career. He took snaps under center off to the side in spring practice. Also, Mariota has the traditional insurance that will protect him in the event of a career-ending injury. He won't reveal much about the policy or his projected draft position from six months ago.

"For me the evaluation was more of an insurance policy deal where I wanted to get a quote," Mariota said.

It is at that point he reveals an interest in sports medicine, perhaps physical therapy. Mariota asks a bystander a pointed medical question about his shoulder surgery.

"Did they have to re-attach your bicep?" he asks.

They did, actually, and at that moment Mariota sounds nothing like a prospective All-American or Heisman candidate. He sounds like a college student full of wonder at how things ironically work out sometimes.

"We're going to go to Louisiana and meet each other," he said of Mannion, "even though we're [47] miles away."

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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