THIBODAUX — It could have been a family get-together. In a way, it was.
Only one seat separated Marcus Mariota and Bryan Bennett during Friday’s interview session at the Manning Passing Academy. They were clearly glad to see each other.
Mariota, reserved and quiet off the field, is the standout quarterback for Oregon, possibly a top-five NFL draft pick this spring had he not been knocked out with a partially torn MCL late in the Ducks’ 11-2 season.
Bennett, a fast-talking extrovert, is the shake-and-bake QB at Southeastern Louisiana who ignited the Lions to a 11-3 record and their first Southland Conference title.
Both could be playing for national championships in a few months. But two years ago they were teammates — both listed on the QB depth chart — at Oregon, good friends as well as competitors.
“I’m glad he’s done so well,” Mariota said. “He’s a good player and a good guy. You know, I really think he helped me get better because Bryan was always pushing me at Oregon. Off the field, he hung out a little bit, at his house listening to music, playing pool, playing golf.”
But their individual tastes are as different as their personalities.
“Yeah, we got along well, but not because we both liked all the same things,” Bennett said. “Marcus likes those sweet Hawaiian songs. I like my music a little stronger, cooler. But just knowing Marcus is a plus in my life.”
They may have gotten better because they were on the same team.
Bennett likes to think they pushed each other, that Mariota’s presence helped him get better — and better and better. Same with Mariota.
The pair was lethal in 2012. Mariota took the job after senior Darron Thomas left, but Bennett made his mark, too. Mariota completed 68.5 percent of his passes for 2,677 yards and 32 touchdowns, running for 752 and five TDs more.
Coming in as a reliever, Bennett had 165 yards and six touchdowns, the duo combining to lift Oregon to a Fiesta Bowl victory over Kansas State and a No. 2 ranking in the final polls.
But Bennett realized if he were ever going to play a serious amount of football, he had to find another collegiate home. That turned out to be Hammond — a long way from Eugene, Oregon, or his hometown of Granada Hills, California. And a long way from old friends, including Mariota.
But since the move, both have blossomed into top-of-the-line dual-threat quarterbacks. Last season, before his injury, Mariota threw for 3,665 yards and 31 touchdowns. He ran for 715 yards and nine more TDs.
Bennett had a breakout season with the Football Championship Subdivision Lions, passing for 3,165 yards and 21 touchdowns, running for 1,046 yards and 16 touchdowns. His 4,211 total yards were fourth-most nationally and, after a season-ending 20-17 loss to New Hampshire in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs, Bennett was named the Southland’s Player of the Year.
Impressive seasons for both, but each thinks there’s plenty of room for improvement. Running Oregon’s blur offense, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Mariota said, “the biggest lesson from last year is that I still have a lot to learn. I think we might have gotten a little complacent around midseason. We could have done some things better. I hope we’ve matured and give every game our best shot. If we do that, Oregon will be all right.”
The burr under Bennett’s saddle is that bitter, season-ending loss to New Hampshire.
“It’s kind of motivation for me,” he said. “I think Southeastern can be better, and I think I can get better. I believe we’ll be a pretty good team.”
A side benefit of his football odyssey, Bennett said, was his arrival in south Louisiana.
“You know, I really love it,” he said. “My travels have given me a chance to see other parts of the country, to see how they live in different areas, to understand what they think. I think Hammond is a lovely town; it’s shown me what Southern hospitality really is. I not only found a place to play football and get my education, I found a home.”
“I’m glad,” Mariota said, “he found a good place.”