In Eugene, focus returns to football
EUGENE — While Marcus Mariota was stiff-arming the paparazzi in New York, the show went on for the rest of the Ducks.
Oregon returned to practice on Monday for the first time since winning the Pac-12 championship on Dec. 5.
Backup quarterback Jeff Lockie did his best to set the tone for the offense in the Heisman Trophy winner’s absence.
“It has kind of been bittersweet with him being gone. I’m getting a little more reps, but at the same time one of my good friends is gone and he’s not out there,” Lockie said. “It’s been strange, but I guess if he decides to move on it will be something I’ll have to get used to.”
Mariota, a fourth-year junior, won’t officially announce if he’s leaving for the NFL draft until after Oregon’s season is finished.
The focus is understandably on the Ducks’ looming showdown with defending national champion Florida State in the College Football Playoff on Jan. 1 at the Rose Bowl (2 p.m., ESPN).
While the coaching staff was on the recruiting trail and/or the award circuit with Mariota last week, many of the players began studying the Seminoles (13-0) on their own.
“A team like Florida State, you can’t sleep on them,” defensive end DeForest Buckner said. “I’m really glad that everyone started watching film early and not waiting until everyone could come back in the building and watch it together. It just shows how much our team has grown over the season.”
The Ducks (12-1) have also used the extra down time to get healthier, especially on the offensive line.
All-American center Hroniss Grasu, who hasn’t played since suffering a lower-leg injury on Nov. 8 at Utah, has ditched his medical scooter and walked out of practice without a noticeable limp.
“I’m getting better every single day. I’m doing whatever they tell me to do,” Grasu said. “I promise, I’m doing whatever I can to get better.”
Right tackle Andre Yruretagoyena, who appeared to re-injure his leg and was carted off the field during the 51-13 victory over Arizona, walked out of practice wearing a small ankle brace instead of the protective boot he celebrated in after the conference title game.
“I think we’ll have more depth than we’ve had in a long time on the front line. We should have just about everybody back,” offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. “At this point, we have a bunch of guys that have played and a lot of guys with experience. Hopefully we can roll some different guys in.”
Royce Freeman averaged 118 yards rushing and Oregon averaged 254.7 total yards rushing during the last three victories, which Thomas Tyner missed due to injury.
“We’ve got a couple more weeks to get ready for this thing,” Frost said. “It should be all hands on deck.”
After making an appearance on “The Late Show with Dave Letterman” and attending the Heisman gala on Monday night in New York, Mariota arrived back in Eugene.
His teammates were glued to the television on Saturday night when the star quarterback became the first player in the program’s history to win the prestigious award.
“I was nervous for him giving that speech. It’s nerve racking. I definitely would have gotten emotional just like him. It’s the best award you can win in college football,” Buckner said.
“We saw that potential in him for a while, and this year we were kind of like, ‘If he doesn’t win it, then I don’t know what’s wrong with America.’
“Everybody on the team, we’re all just proud of him. It’s well deserved.”
Mariota announced a year ago that he would put the NFL on hold to return to Oregon for the 2014 season. Grasu and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu did the same with this kind of Hollywood ending in mind.
“It was probably the proudest moment that I’ve ever had in my whole life,” Grasu said of watching his friend win the Heisman. “He’s someone I look up to and he deserves it more than anyone.”
Like athletic director Rob Mullens, coach Mark Helfrich and the rest of the Oregon contingent that made the trip to New York, the players said it was emotional to watch their humble leader get choked up during his inspiring acceptance speech.
“If you know Marcus the way we know Marcus and you didn’t tear up, you’ve got something wrong with you,” Grasu said.