SEATTLE — On the flight from Seattle back home to Hawaii three years ago, Marcus Mariota made a decision.
“Mom,” he said, “I’m going to be a Husky.”
At some point Saturday afternoon, when he leads No. 2 Oregon into Husky Stadium for a Pac-12 North showdown against No. 16 Washington, Mariota will get away from the Huskies all over again. In all likelihood, the biggest challenge of the season for the revamped UW defense will be trying to contain the Oregon quarterback, whose combination of speed and arm strength have made him the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy.
“He’s really good,” UW defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said.
And, yes, for a while Mariota wanted to be a Husky.
“First and foremost, I have family in Seattle,” Mariota said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “I took an unofficial (visit to the UW campus). I was able to meet all the coaches and meet Coach Sark. That was a really cool experience, honestly. I liked Coach Sark. He was very nice; he was very nice to my family.”
Mariota attended an Oregon camp in summer 2010. (Another relatively unknown quarterback, Johnny Manziel — the future Heisman Trophy winner who was committed to the Ducks at the time — was at the same camp.) After that, Mariota went to the Washington camp in Seattle, where he was formally recruited by then-UW offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
“He was a fantastic player in camp,” Sarkisian said. “He hadn’t started on his high school football team quite yet, so there was some hesitation on our part, quite honestly, in evaluating him.”
Indeed, Mariota didn’t start at Honolulu’s St. Louis High School until his senior season. Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich, now in his first season as the successor to Chip Kelly as the UO head coach, was one of the first recruiters to discover Mariota before the quarterback’s senior season.
“It was certainly bizarre,” Helfrich said Tuesday of recruiting Mariota. “I think he was an unknown because he didn’t play. ... And the more you talked with people around the high school and the football team, he kind of just took on this legendary-like status of just a great person, great student. And then to watch him play; I can remember calling Chip and going, ‘This guy’s unbelievable.’
“And then we made the decision to offer (a scholarship) from there and the rest, as they say, is history.”
A three-star recruit, Mariota wasn’t even offered a scholarship by Hawaii, his hometown school.
“When I first started getting attention from Oregon, I was pretty surprised,” he said.
The decision between the Huskies and Ducks (5-0), the two rival schools, came down to “the whole package of Oregon,” he said. “That whole process was an interesting one, and I’m thankful that things turned out the way they did.”
The redshirt sophomore, listed at 6 feet 4, 211 pounds, with a 4.48-second 40-yard time, has 21 touchdowns (14 passing, seven rushing) and no interceptions. He hasn’t played a single snap in the fourth quarter this season for an Oregon offense averaging 59.2 points.
“Credit to Oregon, they went for it on him before we did,” Sarkisian said. “We tried to come in late and he stuck with his commitment to Oregon. He’s a heck of a player for them. What can you say?”
The question for Wilcox is: What do you do to slow down Mariota and the Oregon offense?
“You defend him on fundamentals,” said Wilcox, the former Oregon defensive back. “We’ve got to get our eyes in the right places; we’ve got to play blocks up front; we’ve got to cover and make sure we’re good in our coverage matchups in the pass game. We’ve got to do a great job of keeping ‘the cage,’ and we’ve got to tackle.”
And they know they’ve got their work cut out for them.