When he's watching practice film of Oregon's offense, UO offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich will sometimes let his eyes drift to the background of the frame.
There, among the Ducks not in on the current play, will be his redshirting quarterbacks, Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues, mimicking the movement of Marcus Mariota or Bryan Bennett — dropping back, raising imaginary football to ear, surveying the field, firing.
"That's awesome," said Helfrich, who is also Oregon's quarterbacks coach. "The dedication every single play, that they're doing that, and know they're not in there?"
For Lockie, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound native of Danville, Calif., and Rodrigues, a 6-3, 218-pounder from Rocklin, Calif., those practice reps figure to be the closest they'll get to the field this season for No. 2 Oregon, which is 6-0 and currently enjoying a bye week. Each quarterback has been tabbed for a redshirt, Lockie practicing behind Mariota and Bennett with Oregon's offense, and Rodrigues helping run the scout team against the UO defense.
Rodrigues arrived first, in the spring, still recovering from a severe lower leg injury that ended his senior season of high school football. Lockie got to Eugene in the summer, and so experienced a little later the shocking differences in size and speed between prep players and his new college teammates.
"It was an adjustment at first," said Lockie, who threw for 3,278 yards and 31 touchdowns last fall, his second year starting at Monte Vista High. "It's definitely going well now. Six weeks into the season, I'm a lot more comfortable, getting used to the pace and everything. It's going well."
It's been a season of firsts for the Ducks' young quarterbacks. In late September, Lockie for the first time traveled to a road game via plane, as he made the trip when Oregon played Washington State in Seattle on Sept. 29. Four weeks earlier, both young quarterbacks experienced their first game in Autzen Stadium, for Oregon's season-opening win over Arkansas State; both intended to do so last fall as recruits, but a playoff run for Lockie and the leg injury to Rodrigues delayed those plans.
"It was breath-taking," Rodrigues said of finally experiencing game day in Autzen, in full pads on the UO sideline, no less. "The fans were just awesome. They're amazing."
Both freshmen fill essential roles during games for the Ducks. Lockie sends in plays to the offense via hand signals, and Rodrigues holds up the four-paneled cards that supposedly factor into play calling as well.
Each also tries to take "mental reps" during games, while the UO offense is on the field, or even by watching the opposing quarterback.
"You read the defense, try to run through the play — do a pre-snap read and then figure out where we should go with the ball," Rodrigues said.
Mariota and Bennett have been resources for the freshmen. So too has fifth UO quarterback Dustin Haines, the junior walk-on from Eugene who "knows the playbook more than anyone, you could argue, so he definitely could answer any question you have," Lockie said.
Helfrich coaches up the freshmen as much as he can during periods in which the Ducks are broken up into position groups. He doesn't have much time for making deep assessments of their progress in-season, while he's preparing for games each week.
"They're first of all just awesome guys to be around, great guys," Helfrich said. "Really good workers, very conscientious. And they're really good — physically they've got a lot of tools to develop."
Lockie, Helfrich said, "has a really good sense of space and timing," analyzing the big picture well. Rodrigues, meanwhile, "probably has the bigger arm," Helfrich said.
"But the ball gets there about the same time," Helfrich added, thanks to their varied strengths.
Among the many things Rodrigues has learned is how to contend with the lingering effects of the leg injury he suffered last fall, ending a season in which he passed for 2,036 yards, ran for 684 and accounted for 41 touchdowns for Whitney High in Rocklin. He has worked to improve strength and flexibility in the limb, and to accept the fact it might never be completely pain-free.
"The best thing for me has been working with it," Rodrigues said. "Just actually running, and pushing through the pain. I know I'm going to feel pain always, but once you push through it, it gets better and better."
At this point, "it feels awesome," he added. "It was kind of unreal, that first game, just running again (on the field at Autzen). It was really tough, but now I'm back and I'm ready to go."
He's healthy enough, then, to quarterback the scout team, something he devotes two days of film study to each week, before stepping onto the field to face the UO defense.
"My goal every week is to be better than the quarterback they play," Rodrigues said. "I'm trying to succeed in that, give them the best look I can give them and try to make our scout team the best scout team in the country."
The chance not only to run plays, but do so against the Oregon defense, reading all the various pre-snap looks and adjustments it makes, is invaluable, Rodrigues says.
"Developing that skill is great," he said. "Obviously I know the playbook and everything for Oregon, but the actual reading of defenses is the hardest part, and I go through that every team period of practice. I feel blessed and honored to be able to go through that."
Lockie is behind Mariota and Bennett, preparing to play with Oregon's offense in games each week. So it's a mental process for him, trying to keep himself sharp.
Lockie knows the Ducks' history and what it could mean for himself, or Rodrigues. In both 2007 and 2008, Oregon used its third-string QB because of injury.
"You never know," Lockie said. "All five of us are preparing. ...
"Marcus and Bryan are doing a great job. We'll just continue to work hard, and see how it goes."