The Ducks got two powerful sources of inspiration and commitment this winter, and both will pay great dividends in their quest for greatness in 2014.
The decision by Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu to return to school is monumental for the mission of Oregon football. These three delayed millions in the NFL draft. Ifo and Super Mario were likely first-round picks, both in the top 20, and Grasu could have been selected in the first three rounds. Centers typically have among the longest and most stable careers in football.
Leave no doubt: there's a certainty of purpose and a wealth of leadership in the 2014 Oregon football team, starting with the best quarterback in the country.
While each will benefit from another year of seasoning and development at the college level, their scouting reports and raw talent were enough that all three could have gone and made life-changing money in salary and bonuses, yet all three decided that their Oregon experience and the opportunity to work alongside their coaches and teammates in Eugene was more valuable for them. They made life decisions that are remarkable for their foresight and maturity.
The significance of their return stamps the 2014 team as serious, committed, and stocked with 6-star talent at three key positions, quarterback, center and lockdown cornerback.
Together Mariota, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu form the leadership base for this team, and no team achieves greatness in college football without outstanding internal leadership.
This squad will be serious and focused. It will remember the lessons of Mark Helfrich's first year, and it will have a sense of mission about achieving their potential and overcoming the obstacles that tripped them up last season.
The bold, brave decision will rub off on their teammates, and set a powerful expectation of what they're playing for this season. They demonstrated a love and loyalty of their school and teammates that will profoundly enhance an already-positive culture among the Ducks.
The 2013 squad was good, and talented, but there was a rottenness at the center, or at least a hint of spoilage. A couple of star players had one foot out the door in terms of their commitment to team goals, and one player left five games into the season. Another seemed detached, making rogue statements and wandering off on his own agenda. A few players seemed more focused on the NFL combine or partying than football.
The focus in 2014 will be tighter, and Mariota, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu will lead it. They're playing for more than a pro contract, and their actions set a sense of mission and camraderie that is more powerful than any halftime speech. And they're surrounded by other capable leaders who will get fresh inspiration from having them back. Already Tony Washington has emerged as a team leader. Jake Fisher and Tyler Johnstone are the solid foundation on an experienced offenisve line. Byron Marshall and Bralon Addison are now veterans and key weapons in the offense. Keanon Lowe , a fierce blocker and unselfish, sets the tone among the receivers in terms of effort and intensity. Derrick Malone, DeForest Buckner and Rodney Hardrick are disciplined warriors that will anchor Don Pellum's new defense.
There are a host of young players that have waited their turn, and all were selected as a part of Oregon's 8-point recruiting process. The leadership, character and maturity in this group is outstanding, and they were talented recruits. Duck fans can expect good things from players like Darren Carrington, Chance Allen, Danny Mattingly, T.J. Daniel, Danny Mattingly, Tyree Robinsons and Reggie Daniels.
The practice intensity and enthusiasm of this group will be outstanding, and the lessons of 2013 won't be forgotten. This team will sustain their commitment through a long season. They will play with a lot of loyalty to each other.
In addition, there is a fresh infusion of talent and commitment in the new class. I've spent the last week interviewing the incoming class for a series for Duck Sports Authority, "Getting to know the 2014 recruits" and I've come away from every interview with the impression, "what an outstanding young man." Morgan Mahalak, Royce Freeman, Tony James and their teammates, while not the 5-star wunderkinds they recruited at Alabama or USC, are all talented football players, but they also have something extra as a group. "We got on the same page right from the start," Mahalak told me. James echoed that, telling me how he bonded with Jimmie Swain, Tyrell Crosby and Arrion Springs at the Under Armour All-American Game.
They committed early, stayed true to their commitment and came in together. These are serious, hard-working guys who love football. They are outstanding leaders and students. They came to Oregon to be a part of something. And Mariota, Grasu and Ekpre-Olomu stayed for the same reason. The junior college editions, Tua Talia, Domique Harrison and Haniteli Lousi are also all of the same caliber, in talent, character and commitment.
A team takes on the personality of its leaders. There will be a new energy at Oregon practice this spring, a palpable change in the air. It will permeate workouts and statements to the media. It will define everything they do. This is a team with a great love for each other and for the game. "Expect another great season," James told me. Outsized expectations have never been more reasonable.