DALLAS - The first time he saw Marcus Mariota is an indelible memory for DeForest Buckner. He was playing for Punahou School, and they were facing powerful St. Louis School from Honolulu.
"He didn't start until his senior year in high school, which I found mind-boggling," the Oregon defensive end recalled. "My sophomore year, we played against them, and he came into the game and drove their team down to get a score against us. I was like, 'Where has this guy been the whole game?'
"In high school, he was the same player. He had the arm and the speed. He killed us single-handedly."
Not much has changed in that regard for Mariota in the course of his three seasons at Oregon except that he has gotten progressively better, as he and the 13-1 Ducks' fast-break offense demonstrated in their 59-20 dissection of defending national champion Florida State in the Rose Bowl.
Now Mariota is positioned to cap his Heisman Trophy-winning junior season with what amounts to a valedictory performance in the first College Football Playoff championship game against Ohio State (13-1) Monday night at AT&T Stadium before graduating to the NFL.
Mariota says that's not a done deal yet, but he acknowledged that winning the national title really is the last item on his to-do list and the reason he returned to Oregon when he could have been an NFL first-round pick last spring.
"It means a lot to be here and have an opportunity to play for the national championship," Mariota said. "Once you step on the field, it will be an incredible feeling. But we've got to kind of control those emotions and play the best game that you can."
Reflecting on how far he has come from his days as a backup quarterback in Hawaii to the biggest stage in college football, Mariota is right where he pictured himself being. "I had visions; I had dreams of doing this stuff," he said. "But to actually be a part of it, it's incredible and just an honor."
The player known as "Super Mariota" has compiled a long list of records, but most significant are his 37-3 career won-loss record, the fact that he's thrown at least one touchdown pass in all 40 career games and his dazzling 103-13 touchdown-to-interception ratio. This season, he has thrown for 40 touchdowns with only three interceptions and rushed for 15 more TDs.
Orchestrating a high-tempo attack, he said, "is like being a point guard on a basketball team. It's fun to dink and dunk and watch those guys make plays."
That's Mariota's typically self-effacing way of passing the credit to the talented playmakers surrounding him, but they view him with a combination of respect and reverence that says everything about the leader he has become.
"What I like is his ability to take over the game," wide receiver Dwayne Stanford said. "He knows moments where he just has to tuck it and run, and he knows where he can extend the play and find somebody open."
The Ducks' receivers practice the scramble drill all the time to prepare for what to do when Mariota breaks out of the pocket to make big plays. "We have to stay alive," receiver Byron Marshall said. "You can't just run a route and it's over. You have to know he can make plays out of nothing, and you have to be open for the ball. It's been a part of the offense since he's been here."
Beyond Mariota's athletic ability, his coaches and teammates at Oregon have come to value his calm demeanor and trust his character. It's obvious that Mariota is an inspirational figure in ways that go far beyond the stats.
When Ducks linebacker Tony Washington was asked how often he sees "wow" moments from Mariota in practice, he said: "Every day. Every single day.
"He wows me most with how he is off the field more so than on the field. He's a humble guy, a caring person, never gets upset off the field. He always puts everybody above him, and that's something you don't see too much from quarterbacks, especially a guy like him who is one of the most decorated players I've ever been around. The way he carries himself is definitely different. It's great to be around that guy, great to play with him."