It is the one question everyone didn’t want to think about but knew was inevitable: Where do the Ducks go now without Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota?

Mariota, unequivocally the best player in Oregon football history, has officially declared himself eligible for the 2015 NFL draft after four years in Eugene. Though the result of Mariota’s final start as a Duck was a disappointment, his contributions to the program are immeasurable.

The redshirt junior from Hawaii is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in college football history. He set numerous Pac-12 records, NCAA records and led the Ducks to their second ever national championship appearance. Despite the loss to Ohio State, Mariota will be remembered as one of the finest quarterbacks to ever play at the collegiate level.

Now, without Mariota, the Ducks find themselves in a position of uncertainty.

While Oregon’s motto of “next man up” has served it well over the past couple of seasons, the program has been built upon a foundation of stability. The head-coaching position has been passed down to the offensive coordinator for the past two decades, and there are a plethora of assistant coaches who’ve been with the program for two or three decades.

The Ducks like to change up their uniforms, they enjoy shunning tradition; however, Oregon is also a program at its best when its leaders are program staples. No player has ever meant more to the Oregon program than Mariota.

Now, the Ducks must move forward without their leader. But whom will they turn to next?

The general assumption is that redshirt sophomore Jeff Lockie, who took a single snap in the title game versus Ohio State, is the favorite to take over for Mariota in the backfield. In a limited role behind Mariota, Lockie was 21-of-28 for 207 yards and a touchdown this season.

The relationship between Mariota and Lockie has been well documented. The duo is extremely close, and the relationship has been good for both parties, especially for Lockie.

“He helps me learn on the field, off the field, how to manage the game,” Lockie said of Mariota, according to The Associated Press, via SFGate.com. “It’s been a pretty awesome experience.”

According to offensive coordinator Scott Frost, Lockie is smart, coachable and has been a model backup for Mariota this season.

“He’s been perfect for what we’ve had,” Frost said, according to Paul Myerberg of USA Today. “He’s a completely reliable, extremely intelligent, very unselfish kid who’s been Marcus’ biggest fan in a hundred ways that people don’t know about. He’s been perfect for that role, and I think he’s relished it.”

While Lockie will be given every opportunity to win the job, the position is very much up for grabs, and the Ducks will likely hold an open competition for the job.

Since Chip Kelly took over as offensive coordinator in 2007, the Ducks have had three major changes at the quarterback position. In 2008, the quarterback job was open after Dennis Dixon graduated. Instead of going with Justin Roper, who had finished the 2007 season after Dixon tore his ACL late in the year, Kelly and then-head coach Mike Bellotti went with a player who was fifth on the QB depth chart coming into camp: Jeremiah Masoli.

Masoli was the unlikely choice, but he managed to lead the Ducks to the Rose Bowl in 2009 and earned first team All-Pac-10 honors along the way.

When Masoli left the program after the 2009 season, Kelly again held an open competition at quarterback. Once again, the favorite didn’t end up getting the job.

Coming into the 2010 season, it was expected that Nate Costa, a senior, would take over for Masoli and easily beat out his competitor: Darron Thomas. Instead, Thomas surprisingly won the job and led the Ducks to a perfect 12-0 regular-season record in his first year as Oregon’s starter. While the Ducks lost in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game to Auburn, Thomas set a championship-game record with 363 passing yards.

Thomas, who went 24-3 as a starter at Oregon, threw for 63 touchdowns in two seasons and guided the Ducks to their first Rose Bowl victory in 95 years.

When Thomas left the program after his redshirt-junior season to attempt a career in the NFL, the job was once again vacant.

Who will be Oregon’s QB next season?

This time, the job was expected to be given to Bryan Bennett, a sophomore who had served as Thomas’ backup in 2011. However, a redshirt freshman from Hawaii came in and blew away the competition.

Now, with the job left vacant again, the Ducks will once again use an open competition to flush out the best quarterback candidate.

If Lockie is thought to be the prohibitive favorite, then it would be wise to get well acquainted with the other contenders considering the favorite is 0-3 in quarterback competitions since 2007.

The Ducks currently have three other quarterbacks on the roster who will vie for a chance to be the starter next season: freshman Morgan Mahalak and redshirt freshmen Taylor Alie and Ty Griffin, who transferred to Oregon from Georgia Tech.

Oregon could also go with Travis Waller, a 6’2” 4-star recruit, according to 247Sports, from Anaheim, California, who is expected to enroll at Oregon in the spring.

Of course, it could be someone from outside the program. As Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee explains, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller could be the perfect fit in Eugene. 

As a graduate, he can transfer now if he can find a home, and simply getting mental reps during spring practice would help not only him but also the younger players who get actual first-team reps.

Mariota stepped in as a redshirt freshman in place of Darron Thomas, and the offense didn’t miss a beat. Thomas stepped in as a sophomore for Jeremiah Masoli and led the Ducks to the 2011 BCS National Championship Game following the 2010 season. 

It’s a great system that’s designed for simplicity, speed and efficiency—all of which would benefit Miller as he recovers from his shoulder injury.

Whoever gets the job will be tasked with filling Mariota’s shoes. It’s an unenviable task that should come with tempered expectations. Oregon’s starting quarterback in 2015 should go out and try to be his own man. There’s no doubt that whoever that is, whether it be Lockie, Waller, Mahalak or someone else, will have the full support of the coaching staff and his teammates.

Oregon’s “next man up” motto is one of the program’s tenets and came in handy more than a few times during the 2014 season. Now, facing one of the most important quarterback competitions in school history, the Ducks will once again rely on that motto.

There’s no replacing Mariota. The school should retire No. 8. However, one player does not define the Oregon program.

The Ducks should be in a position to succeed in 2015 regardless of who is taking the snaps. Oregon will be stacked with playmakers next season, as Thomas Tyner, Royce Freeman, Byron Marshall, Darren Carrington, Pharaoh Brown, Evan Baylis, Charles Nelson and Bralon Addison will all be returning.

If you look at it in that light, Oregon’s next QB may have the easiest job in the country. Just put the ball in all of the playmakers’ hands and don’t turn it over.

Oregon’s next QB has some big shoes to fill, but the job might be the best in the nation.

Statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com unless otherwise stated. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.

Jason Gold is Bleacher Report’s lead Oregon writer. Follow Jason on Twitter @TheSportsGuy33.

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