On Saturday in New Orleans, for a short time at least, Marcus Mariota could harken back to his college days — flying in for a few hours to accept the Manning Award as last season’s best quarterback — and also to recall his three years as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux.
Then, for the Heisman Trophy winner from Oregon, it was on to Orlando, Florida, to tape his segment in the Gruden QB Camp, with a side visit to Tampa, where the Buccaneers just happen to have the first pick in the NFL draft.
Then it will be back to Eugene, Oregon, Mariota’s pre-draft training headquarters.
“It’s all surreal for me, a dream for myself being here and at some of the other award banquets,” said Mariota, who went though his Pro Day at Oregon on Thursday and flew across the country Friday to accept the Maxwell Award in Atlantic City. “Some of these things only come around once, and for me I’m just trying to enjoy it and make the most of these moments.”
The Manning Award, sponsored by the Sugar Bowl, may have been for Mariota’s college exploits — which included becoming the first player to finish a season with a plus-50 ratio of touchdowns to interceptions and leading the Ducks to the first College First Playoff championship game — but all of the questions Saturday were about Mariota’s draft prospects.
He is the most-discussed player on the board, chiefly because he played in a read-option system at Oregon that hasn’t always translated well to the NFL. That has Mariota projected to go anywhere from first to 10th, although the consensus is he won’t fall below the New York Jets at No. 6.
“Everybody has their opinions,” he said. “I can’t control what they say, so I don’t worry about them. What I do is just prepare myself every day to get myself ready for the next level.”
That also applies to which team might take him.
While Tampa Bay is reportedly leaning toward taking Florida State’s Jameis Winston, Mariota’s spotless reputation could change the equation.
Tennessee at No. 2 seemingly has committed to ex-LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, while Jacksonville and Oakland, which have the third and fourth picks, are seemingly set at quarterback.
Washington at No. 5 could end the Robert Griffin III experiment. The Jets at No. 6 are next in need of a franchise quarterback and, at the Maxwell Award ceremony, Mariota said, “I’d love to play for the Jets.”
Also, of course, a team could make a bold move to move into position to get Mariota. That includes the Philadelphia Eagles, coached by Chip Kelly — who was Mariota’s coach for two years at Oregon. But Kelly has said he would not “mortgage the future” to get Mariota.
“You get kind of anxious to try to figure out where you will end up,” Mariota said. “But right now you have no say in the process. One team is going to really like you, and that’s all that really matters.”
Jeff Hawkins, a former Tulane and Sugar Bowl official who is now senior associate athletic director at Oregon and who is coordinating Mariota’s management team, said whoever drafts Mariota will be getting a special player.
“Marcus is going to be irreplaceable at Oregon,” he said. “We’ve had running backs and quarterbacks come and thought they were irreplaceable, but Marcus is different.
“He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t swear and he doesn’t do social media, so you don’t have to worry about tweets at 3 in the morning. In fact, when other kids get in trouble, Marcus is the first one they call. They broke the mold with Marcus.”