There are those who question Marcus Mariota. They say he’s a system quarterback – a great leader, sure, but a guy who won’t stack up against NFL defenses. That’s a fair argument.

But so is the rebuttal: Mariota, who won a Heisman Trophy, led Oregon to the national title game and dazzled at the Combine, has all the skills – tangible and intangible – to step in right away and be the savior of a franchise.

Rick Neuheisel isn’t in either of these camps, but he’s much closer to the latter than he is the former.

“Well, I think it’s difficult for any young quarterback to come in and be a savior, but I do believe Mariota is in a class of (his own) right there at the top of (the) draft,” the CBS Sports college football analyst said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “And to me, when you’re talking about the investment of millions of dollars and putting somebody clearly as the face of your franchise, it’s hard to argue with a guy that has done as much for a program as Mariota has.”

Mariota was lightly recruited out of Hawaii but ended up at high-profile Oregon. His recruitment mirrored his career: In the beginning, most people didn’t know much about him; by the end, it was impossible not to.

“He’s the first college quarterback in the history of the game to be +50 when you’re talking about touchdowns accounted for as opposed to turnovers accounted for,” Neuheisel pointed out. “You look at a guy who’s coming into the league, you know he’s bright, you know he’s mature, you know that he’s savvy. And then you put that together with all the measureables we saw at the combine in terms of his speed and his elusiveness to get out of trouble in the pocket – which we know is coveted at the next level – I think he’s can’t-miss.”

Tampa Bay, however, may think otherwise. The Bucs are rumored to be smitten with Jameis Winston, in part because he’s a pro-style quarterback and in part because he’s a local boy, relatively speaking, who can put butts in the seats.

Neuheisel refers to this as “(addressing) the economic situation.”

“I think Mariota is the much safer pick at the first spot,” he said. “Now, Winston has got that it factor. He’s from more an NFL deal. You don’t worry about him being a system quarterback. But recall – and this is before we talk about anything off the field – he threw 18 picks last year. Eighteen. You can’t do that and change your fortunes if you’re going to come to the next level and throw a bunch of interceptions. I’m a Mariota fan. I know that makes me sound West Coast. I just think he’s the safer guy to go with.”

Wherever Mariota ends up, he should not necessarily be considered a flop or a failure if he struggles for his first few games – or even his first few seasons. He’s a young guy with a lot of potential. He just has to reach it.

“I think it’s like anything else,” Neuheisel said. “You have to learn a new language. You have to learn something new. But if you just look at the person . . . he’s very mature. (He’s a) very bright young man.”

Neuheisel also has some advice for teams considering Mariota in this year’s draft: don’t completely alter his game; modify it.

“How about look at the system (he’s had success in)? How about incorporate some of that stuff?” Neuheisel asked. “It isn’t as though that hasn’t worked. It has changed the fortunes of the Seattle Seahawks with Russell Wilson. It changed the fortunes immediately for the San Francisco 49ers, and explicably they went away from it with Colin Kaepernick. But how about bringing some of that with him? You’ll have an unbelievable recipe for instant success. And I promise you – somehow, someway – Chip Kelly has got his mind (set on) trying to get (Mariota).”


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