Every year there are question marks.
Around the league and from the keyboards of the pundits and pessimists, the anti-Duck venom spews in three main areas: drop off because of a new head coach, loss of three key leaders at linebacker, and uncertainty at running back.
Just suppose the Webfoots nabbed a transfer at the last minute, a guy who was the #4 running back in the country in the 2012 recruiting class, a 4-star prospect with 10.6 speed in the 100 and a 22.2 in the 200. He busted through defenses for 9.38 yards a carry as a senior, earning a spot in the Army All-America Game. One service rated him the 48th best player in the entire nation.
At 5-11, 201 lbs, he’s fast, strong and powerful, able to run inside or outside, a fierce competitor whose parents were both college athletes and two older siblings were starters at rival PAC-12 schools in football and track.
Except, the Ducks already have that guy. Meet Byron Marshall.
Sometimes in the rush to anticipate what’s shiny and new, fans forget the guys who’ve been patiently working and waiting their turn in the program. The same thing is happening at linebacker, where everyone is all aglitter about Torrodney Prevot and Joe Walker. Both could contribute this year, but Tyson Coleman, Derrick Malone, Brett Bafaro and Rodney Hardrick have two solid years of preparation behind them, and the year they came out as preps, THEY were the highly touted All Stars and record setters.
With Marshall, the assumption by many is that somehow he lacks the flash to be effective as Oregon’s lead back. After LMJ and Kenjon Barner, there’s concern the running game will decline without their speed and breakaway ability.
Uh, Marshall’s been hand-timed at 4.38 in the 40. His 10.6 100 is a tenth faster than anything Kenjon Barner ran as a member of the National Champion Oregon track team.
(Highlights courtesy of Mike Wines, Oregon Duck Soup)
Listed at 5-10, 201 by the Ducks, he’s an inch taller and five pounds bigger than James or Barner, with the leg drive and cutting ability to make tough yards and move the pile. In his highlight tape, watch how Marshall finishes runs: he’s driving forward, stretching for extra yards, often delivering the blow. He runs with urgency and purpose, good balance, consistently getting what’s there and making positive plays.
From Valley Christian of San Jose, where his mother is the track coach, Oregon’s #9 doesn’t have the world class quicks of Thomas Tyner or De’Anthony Thomas, but he’s stronger. Byron’s thrown up 310 lbs. on the bench press and a reported 510 in the squat. according to scout.com. His father is a graduate of the Air Force Academy, where he was a track and basketball star, currently the strength and conditioning coach at Santa Clara University. Brother Cameron started two years at running back for Arizona State, while older sister Dahlys ran track at the University of Arizona, with a top time of 13.66 in the 100 meter hurdles.
The point is, Byron’s been exposed to competition and great training since he was a young boy. The duel for the starting spot at tailback this fall is something he relishes, putting in his work in several areas to get ready. This spring he told Adam Jude, then of the Oregonian, what his priorities were:
…ball security, conditioning, eat right off the field, remembering the plays, playing faster
Marshall got some valuable experience as a freshman. He played in 10 of the Ducks’ 13 games, carrying the ball 87 times for 447 yards, a 5.1 yard average. In the spring game he reeled off runs of 25 and 17 yards. He looked solid, breaking tackles and driving up field, with six carries for 60 yards on his abbreviated day.
Last fall as a true freshman he had long runs of 32, 27, 25, 17, 17 yards, scoring four times. He got his most extended work against Tennessee Tech in game 3, the leading rusher off the bench in a blowout, 13 carries for 125 yards. He had 8 totes, 59 yards and a touchdown against Washington, 12 and 67 versus Colorado.
Marshall displayed soft hands out of the backfield as a prep, catching 11 passes for 331 yards as a sophomore, also returning punts and kickoffs.
The excitement over De’Anthony Thomas and Thomas Tyner is justified and understandable. Both are world class athletes and potential Heisman winners and prospective NFL stars. But Marshall is no slouch. He’s solid and reliable, as fast or faster than Barner, Rueben Droughns, LeGarrette Blount or Terrence Whitehead, backs who racked up a lot of yards in green and yellow. Byron didn’t lose a fumble in his 88 touches last year, picked his holes well, ran upfield rather than danced. Often he entered games with the Ducks holding a big lead and defenses putting 8 in the box, knowing the Ducks were unlikely to pass. Against stacked defenses with the number two line, Marshall got valuable experience and ran creditably.
One important point about the Oregon system is that the role of the running back is different than what many people perceive. With zone blocking and a very disciplined wide receiver corps, the main thing the Ducks need from a running back is not raw speed but good vision and patience. Watch back the tape of Kenjon Barner’s record setting day against USC, 321 yards and 5 touchdowns. The blocking is so good Barner isn’t even touched as he picks his way upfield, often getting 10 and 15 yards before contact. The o-linemen, tight end Colt Lyerla and the wide receivers have defenders walled off at the first and second level. At times Barner looks like Michael Jordan driving the lane, soaring uncontested behind a wall of perfect picks.
On a team that blocks like this, the tailback has to recognize where the creases are and be decisive, make one cut and go, something position coach Gary Campbell stresses every day. The running backs are important, but the drive train of Oregon’s fearsome offense is Hroniss Grasu, Tyler Johnstone, Jake Fisher, Lyerla, Keanon Lowe and Josh Huff. They do their jobs so effectively the ball carrier is almost plug-and-play. Some people expressed the same doubts last July that Barner could be an every-down back. They were wrong, by 1767 yards.
Marshall cuts well and uses his blockers. He’s disciplined and runs with great effort, toughness and desire. The extended playing time and a year of practice has given him a solid understanding of what the Ducks are trying to do offensively and what his role is as the ball carrier. Seeing the holes, making the right reads will allow Marshall to play faster as a sophomore.
Also, understanding competition and the value of being underestimated, he might surprise as Oregon’s lead tailback this season. He’ll be a workhorse who will do exactly what Gary Campbell tells him. He has toughness and fire. And for the last nine months, he has had the great advantage of having everybody tell him about the other guy and what he can’t do.
Just watch. With Marcus Mariota’s passing arm and quick feet tormenting defensive coordinators, a solid, reliable tailback who focuses on ball security, eating right, remembering the plays and being faster might be exactly what the Ducks need in 2013.