By Barry Donovan
The NFL draft is only seven days away — April 30 in Chicago — and the speculation that the Eagles are maneuvering to move up to where they can draft Marcus Mariota isn’t going away.
In fact, the Oregon QB is fueling it!
Mariota realizes the odds of such a reunion are long. The Eagles pick at No. 20. Mariota could be chosen as early as No. 1 overall by Tampa Bay.
Mariota, though, wouldn’t mind if Kelly could maneuver Philly in position for his services with the same type of bold moves already exhibited during this offseason’s roster makeover.
“Coach Kelly has a purpose with everything he does,” Mariota told FOX Sports in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “When it comes down to it, I’m sure if his plan is to move up, he will. I know this: He’s going to do what he can to make the Eagles franchise the best he can make it come the first game of the season.
“We’ll see what happens. But it would be fun to be part of it again.”
Mariota shredded the opposition during his three-year career as a Ducks starter. He won more games (36) than any previous Oregon quarterback. He also holds seven career or single-season passing records after orchestrating the same high-tempo style of offense that Kelly has installed with the Eagles.
Kelly coached Mariota only as a freshman before departing for the NFL. But the impression Kelly left behind remained strong throughout Mariota’s college days.
“First and foremost, coach Kelly really cares about his players,” Mariota said. “He cares about striving to be the best team but at the same time living up to a culture that best resembles a team atmosphere. You could really tell each and every single day he was finding ways to improve the team.
“His offense speaks for itself. What we were able to do and accomplish said a lot about his innovative mind. His ability to make the quarterback a lot more versatile with both the passing and running game set him apart.”
Mariota, though, knows that his college style of play doesn’t translate as well to the systems run by most other NFL teams. That’s why Mariota has spent so much of the offseason trying to prove that he can become more of a conventional “pro-style” quarterback who doesn’t need to play exclusively out of the shotgun to succeed. Mariota also said he has taken to heart the advice he was given to protect himself to lessen the injury risk that can befall NFL quarterbacks who turn up-field.
“I’ve definitely learned the fundamentals of getting under center, taking three-, five- and seven-step drops, showing play-action, and being able to learn some of those things I was not necessarily asked to do at Oregon,” Mariota said. “I really feel I’ve improved in that aspect of it and continue to improve. I’m glad I’ve gotten my feet wet.”
The looming question now is which team will take the plunge and draft Mariota.
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Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt has offered high praise of Mariota and said he would immediately become the team’s starter if selected.
“He’s done a nice job in the time I’ve spent with him,” Whisenhunt said last month at the NFL owners meeting in Phoenix. “We spent time with him in the classroom. We worked him out. He exhibits a lot of the qualities that successful quarterbacks have. He doesn’t turn the ball over a lot, is accurate when he throws it, (and) can extend the play. His team gravitates toward him. You can see that.
“He has a lot of those things that those quarterbacks who have been successful in the league have.”
None of this means the Titans are truly interested in Mariota. If they’re not, the franchises that are could be spurred to entice Tennessee into trading out of the spot.
It’s known that Mariota had extensive pre-draft meetings and/or visits with the New York Jets (No. 6 overall pick), Chicago (No. 7), St. Louis (No. 10) and San Diego (No. 17). Although the scheduling couldn’t be worked out,Washington (No. 5) wanted a pre-draft visit. Mariota didn’t travel to Cleveland (Nos. 12 and 19), but the Browns can get an in-depth scouting report from their new quarterbacks coach. Kevin O’Connell helped prepare Mariota for the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis before getting hired in Cleveland.
Other teams could be cloaking their interest. And of course, there are the Eagles.
Mariota is taking all the speculation in stride. It helps that he is able to insulate himself with family and close friends after returning to his hometown of Honolulu following his pre-draft meetings and visits.
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“Being here for the draft has actually helped eliminate those distractions,” said Mariota, who will remain in Hawaii rather than attend NFL festivities next week in Chicago. “It has allowed me to rest and recuperate and get ready for the next step in my career.”
Part of that step includes endorsement deals. Mariota joined the likes of Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III and Minnesota linebackerAnthony Barr in draft prospects who had a three-foot statue of Subway ingredients and toppings crafted in their image.
“It was cool,” said Mariota, who attended the unveiling Wednesday at a Honolulu Subway. “It was the first thing I saw this morning when Subway brought it over for me to see it. It looked realistic. I love guac.”
Something he’d love even more: Wearing an Eagles uniform.