by Rob Moseley
Just a few days after announcing his intention to return to Oregon next fall, sophomore quarterback Marcus Mariota spent part of Friday morning on an inner tube, descending a short slope next to the Ducks' outdoor practice fields that had been coated with a dusting of snow earlier that morning.
It was a moment of unabashed playfulness, a reminder that those of college age still have plenty of kid in them, on their path to adulthood. It was also exactly the sort of moment that led Mariota, a few days earlier, to decide he wanted to spend another year in Eugene.
Generally expected to be a top-five pick had he entered the 2014 NFL Draft, Mariota spurned that temptation in order to take a third crack at a Pac-12 championship next season. And to enjoy a few more moments like the one he shared on that mini ski slope Friday.
"Talking about the money, it would have definitely helped out my family," Mariota said. "But at the same time, we came back to the amount of memories and the amount of experiences another year of college would bring.
"And just to be able to grow up a little bit — have another year to get bigger, faster, stronger — just different aspects like that outweighed the financial standpoint."
Prior to Oregon's Civil War win the last week of November, Mariota said he intended to make his draft decision after the Ducks' bowl game, in consultation with his family. But his parents and younger brother were in Eugene for that week of Thanksgiving, and by the end of the visit they'd come to their conclusion, weeks earlier than anticipated.
"A lot of people think it was a lot harder than it really was for us to stay," said Mariota, who has a school-record 3,994 yards of offense this season entering Oregon's bowl game. "Just the community, the school — I love it here and I wanted to enjoy another year."
Mariota, a general sciences major who intends to complete his degree prior to leaving Oregon, said his family is exploring various insurance options to protect against the chance of injury next season. He also requested a draft evaluation from the NFL, for the sake of constructive criticism.
"You can always get better, and one of those evaluations will be able to help me pinpoint things that I can work on," Mariota said. "I definitely can work on being more consistent in my accuracy. And definitely, (not) turning the ball over; that hurt us late in the season.
"You can always get better in those aspects. And just being more of a leader."
Mariota's decision to return as a junior gives the Ducks four returning scholarship quarterbacks. Backups Jeff Lockie and Jake Rodrigues will be redshirt sophomores in 2014, and Damion Hobbs will be a redshirt freshman next fall.
Mariota's return was announced in tandem with that of center Hroniss Grasu. The impact of that decision shouldn't be overshadowed by Mariota's, as Grasu will be a fourth-year starter in 2014, at a position where his backup this season is a senior, Karrington Armstrong.
Now, the Ducks await decisions by running back De'Anthony Thomas and cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu. Each has been projected as a possible first-round pick next spring were he to leave, but neither had made a decision as of this weekend.
Both players said feedback from their draft evaluations would be a factor; those are expected back from the NFL soon. The return of Mariota, a two-time team MVP who is already sixth all-time in passing (6,089) at Oregon and fourth in total offense (7,423), also could influence Ekpre-Olomu and Thomas, if only slightly.
"To an extent it does, but not really," Ekpre-Olomu said. "I'm really just going to do what's best for me and my family. But knowing Marcus is going to be back and be a leader of the team, that's great."