For OSU, UO, many happy returns
Sean Mannion doesn't merely want to make the NFL. The Oregon State quarterback has designs on contributing at his sport's highest level.
That aim proved the driving force behind Mannion's announcement via Twitter on Monday that he will return for his final year of eligibility. The junior spurned the chance to go within the first few rounds of May's NFL draft. Instead, he will hone mechanics on a Beavers team desperate to build off a disappointing 7-6 campaign.
"Knowing that I've made the decision to return, I'm twice as excited about it," Mannion told reporters in a conference call Monday afternoon. "But in reality, the fact that I can even decide between going to the NFL or returning for a senior season, I almost have to pinch myself to think that I'm even getting to talk about this."
In-state rival Oregon also got good news when cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu announced he'd come back for his senior season.
Mannion's return will give a boost of veteran experience to the Beavers, who earlier this month saw Brandin Cooks, the 2013 Biletnikoff Award winner, and defensive end Scott Crichton announce they would skip their final year at OSU.
Mannion, fresh off a season in which he set a Pac-12 record with 4,662 passing yards, submitted paperwork recently to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, a group of NFL scouts who project where a potential prospect might be selected. Mannion got feedback from six different scouts, all of whom said the 6-foot-5, 220-pounder would likely go no later than the third round.
"It was exciting that it was certainly a thing that was attainable," Mannion said. "I wanted to get as much information as I could, looking to this year as opposed to next year."
The pocket passer leaned on a host of elders when making his decision. He said he discussed his options "very frequently" with offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf and head coach Mike Riley. Mannion also reached out to Derek Anderson and Matt Moore, former OSU quarterbacks who've enjoyed lengthy NFL careers.
"I think it was good to kind of get their thoughts on going to the NFL from college, and their experiences with it," Mannion said. "I kind of bounced off them what I thought about the situation. From that, I definitely got to feel a lot better about everything that goes into" the decision.
He added that he didn't fret over other college quarterbacks' NFL choices. He "made the decision that best fit me personally."
Of course, it also buoys an OSU team facing the daunting task of replacing arguably the program's all-time greatest receiver. Cooks, the FBS leader with 1,730 receiving yards this past season, accounted for more than 28 percent of the Beavers' offense.
In his absence, Mannion said, OSU will need a number of inexperienced players to shoulder heavier loads. Still, he remains confident that the Beavers can compete in a tough Pac-12 next season.
"From what I've seen from the young guys and from the guys coming off a redshirt year, I really feel good about our team as a whole," Mannion said before running through a laundry list of players he expects to contribute in 2014. "We have a lot of good pieces, and I'm excited to step into it next year."
Mannion was terrific early in the season as OSU reeled off six consecutive wins, and got some Heisman attention with his nation-leading numbers. The Beavers had virtually no run game most of the season and leaned heavily on Mannion's arm to get offense.
He struggled in the second half of the season against the conference's better defenses, though, throwing 12 interceptions in the Beavers' final five games. For the year, Mannion completed 400 of 603 passes for his record-breaking passing yardage and threw 37 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. His 356.6 passing yards per game ranked second in the nation behind only Derek Carr of Fresno State.
"I'm excited to continue playing college football," Mannion said. "I'm just excited to get back."
Mannion, who graduated this past term with a bachelor's degree in liberal studies, has considered pursuing a master's degree next year.
In Eugene, Ekpre-Olomu's announcement is almost as big of news on the defensive side of the ball as Marcus Mariota's decision to come back and quarterback the Ducks in 2014.
Ekpre-Olomu was projected as a first-round NFL pick. The All-American cornerback was second on Oregon's defense with 84 tackles and three interceptions.
"The biggest thing for me is just knowing if I'm ready or I'm not, or if I want to keep playing college football and keep experiencing college," Ekpre-Olomu told the Register-Guard recently when asked about the decision. "This is the time in your life you're going to always remember. It's something you have to cherish and get all the facts right."
Oregon's other starting cornerback, Terrance Mitchell, announced on Jan. 2 he will forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL. The junior led the Ducks with five interceptions and also had seven pass break-ups in 2013.
Ekpre-Olomu will be the only returning starter in the secondary with senior safeties Brian Jackson and Avery Patterson out of eligibility.
Head coach Mark Helfrich is in the process of finding a replacement for Nick Aliotti, the program's longtime defensive coordinator, who retired after the 30-7 victory over Texas at the Alamo Bowl a week ago.
Backup cornerback Troy Hill's future with the team is up in the air. He was arrested last month on menacing and criminal mischief charges and remains suspended indefinitely.
Backup safety Erick Dargan, who was suspended for the Oregon State game along with Hill for violating team rules, suited up for the Alamo Bowl but did not play.
Dior Mathis, Oregon's cornerback in nickel packages, will have a chance to start next season. Other young players the coaching staff feels good about include Issac Dixon, Reggie Daniels, Chris Seisay and Tyree Robinson.
Oregon has also signed junior college cornerback Dominique Harrison and has a verbal commitment from four-star cornerback Arrion Springs from San Antonio for the 2014 class.
On Sunday night, running back De'Anthony Thomas announced he was withdrawing from classes at Oregon and will enter the NFL draft.
Mariota and center Hroniss Grasu announced after the Civil War their intentions to put professional careers on hold for one more run with the Ducks.