Why you should care
Because you can’t coach speed.
On college football’s opening day, Georgia Tech freshman Marcus Marshall took a handoff and sped up the middle, through a swarm of would-be defenders, to score a 49-yard touchdown. He wasn’t done, though. Later, Marcus cut forward and skated 64 yards through the defense for another end-zone trip. It was a déjà vu moment, though not what you’re thinking. See, three years earlier, another diminutive but speedy running back made a splashy debut carving his way through tacklers in the Peach State. That back’s name? Keith Marshall, Marcus’ older brother, now a senior at in-state rival University of Georgia.
Some families just have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to athletic talent. The Manning brothers have won three Super Bowls between them (two for Eli, one for Peyton); the quarterback bros previously tore it up at Ole Miss and Tennessee, respectively. Ronde and Tiki Barber starred at the University of Virginia, at cornerback and running back, respectively, before becoming possible Hall of Famers in the pros. While the Marshalls have yet to establish All-American accolades or bona fide NFL credentials, they do have one shared trait that puts them above the rest: They both are really freaking fast.
How fast? When Keith arrived at Georgia as a freshman, he immediately challenged sophomore receiver Malcolm Mitchell, considered the team’s fastest player, to a footrace … and won by a head. As a high school senior, Keith starred in the 100- and 200-meter races and won the 2011 USA Track & Field regional championships. Before college, Keith’s fastest reported 40-yard-dash time — the number most used by scouts to determine in-game speed — was 4.25 seconds; that would be the third-fastest official time ever if recorded by the NFL Draft Combine. Marcus isn’t far behind, with a still-blazing 4.40-second time, which would have been the fastest recorded time among this year’s rookie running backs.
Athletes who can outrun the wind — whether it’s Florida State’s Deion Sanders sauntering into pay dirt on a 1998 punt return or Ohio State’s Braxton Miller’s stunning spin that sent him off to the races a few weeks ago — have always drawn crowds. The Marshalls are entertainers too, though the two track studs took different lanes to get there. Keith was highly touted, ranked the No.1 all-purpose running back in his recruiting class, and, at 5-foot-11, is two inches taller than his younger brother. Marcus was only a three-star (out of five) recruit, partly because of his smaller frame. “I never tried to make him feel like he was in my shadow,” Keith told OZY. (Marcus didn’t respond to interview requests; Georgia Tech doesn’t let freshmen talk to the media.) Marcus is known as the more physical runner of the two, a pounding bowling ball of a back who scatters defenders like ninepins.
Clarence Inscore, who coached both brothers at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, N.C., says he foolishly didn’t try Marcus at running back until a few games into his junior year. “I joke with Keith that if I had been smarter, he wouldn’t have any career records,” Inscore says. “Marcus would have broken them all.” The Marshalls also set high marks academically. Both Keith and Marcus reportedly graduated high school with about a 4.3 GPA. “They were both very curious kids,” says Warren Marshall, their father. Their favorite TV channels were the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet, and they put just as much time into their school work as they did their blossoming football careers. Warren says he set that example for them — he graduated as the all-time leading rusher at James Madison University, earned a degree and, yes, played briefly for the Denver Broncos. His wife, Denise, was a high school track athlete, which may explain the kids’ fast feet.
While that speed is a crowd-pleaser, it isn’t everything. Upon arriving at Georgia, Keith was overshadowed by his freshman teammate Todd Gurley, who became an NFL first-round draft pick this summer. After tearing his ACL in 2013, Keith rushed back to the field, only to suffer a season-ending leg injury in 2014. And even when he has been healthy, Keith has struggled with balance despite all his quickness. “He always had a bit of a forward lean,” Inscore says, adding that he’d get “tripped up too much” and end big runs prematurely. Keith still is playing second fiddle to Georgia starter Sony Michel. Marcus’ roadblocks to stardom are a bit more mundane: He’s still small, and will have to fight for carries on a team that has more seasoned runners, like Justin Thomas, a junior, and Patrick Skov, a senior.
The Marshall brothers will have opportunities to shine, though. Keith ran for 54 yards and two scores in the season opener, a moment that was especially gratifying considering his past injuries. “It’s nice to get noticed by the whole family,” Keith says, remembering the applause when he scored in that first game. And Marcus was named Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Week after running for 159 yards and two touchdowns last week (he is the Yellow Jackets’ top rusher, with 439 yards on just 41 carries). For both of them, the “dream of professional football” remains, Inscore says. No matter how their college careers finish, they will likely draw curious pro scouts for the one thing they do better than the rest. As the saying goes: You can’t coach speed.