By Rob Moseley
Byron Marshall was just 6 years old when he began running track and field at the club level. As a high school sophomore, he finished third in the 60 meters at a national indoor championship meet.
Once at Oregon – known as much as any other program in the country for speed – Marshall tested as one of the fastest players on the team in the 30-yard fly, which measures top-end speed with a running start.
So it was with bewilderment that Marshall’s mother, Tammie, would read analysis online that labeled her 5-foot-10, 200-pound son a bigger, change-of-pace back in the Ducks’ stable of fleet runners.
“She’s always asking me the same question,” said Marshall’s father, Greg. “Why do people think Byron is slow?”
He isn’t, of course, as Marshall has demonstrated the last few weeks. Bolstered by experience, in better shape this season and comforted by the confidence of his teammates and coaches, Marshall is Oregon’s leading rusher entering his homecoming this week.
With 879 yards through eight games, the sophomore San Jose native has a chance to hit 1,000 before friends and family at nearby Stanford on Thursday. Stepping up in the absence of De’Anthony Thomas, Marshall has rushed for 100 yards in all five Pac-12 games this season.
He’s also averaging 6.76 yards per carry – third-most nationally among players with at least 130 carries – and has five rushes of 30 or more yards, tied for 10th nationally. Not bad for a big, change-of-pace back.
“I definitely as a whole feel my game is better,” Marshall said. “Faster, stronger, smarter.”
Of those three factors, the latter two have had a huge impact on the first.
Greg Marshall, a sports performance coach, says speed is a result of two factors: strength and technique. Byron Marshall arrived at Oregon with a particularly good technical base, said UO strength coach Jim Radcliffe, a speed guru, and he’s gotten stronger while losing about eight pounds in the last year.
“All of our backs have good speed, or they wouldn’t be here,” Radcliffe said. “But his has improved.”
Marshall is also a smarter runner. As a freshman, his tendency was to put his head down and go. That same tendency led to a 31-yard performance on 15 carries at Virginia early this season.
It’s been a different story the last several weeks. Armed with the experience of his 130 carries, Marshall has a better grasp of how a play develops, and what options he might have.
In practice Monday, he demonstrated that. An inside running play broke down quickly; rather than get bogged down in the backfield, Marshall made two quick slide steps to his right behind big offensive tackle Jake Fisher, then raced upfield for a long gain.
“He knows if there’s a breakdown some place, there’s an opportunity somewhere else,” UO running backs coach Gary Campbell said.
“He’s always had good speed. He’s just gotten to that point now where he’s comfortable, and he can get into the open to show his speed.”
For a guy who spends hours each day running, Marshall couldn’t have come from a better background. When Greg left high school coaching to open his own sports performance coaching business, Tammie replaced him as varsity track and field coach at Valley Christian High. Marshall’s brother, Cameron, played running back at Arizona State, and his sister, Dahlys (pronounced Dallas), was a sprinter and hurdler at Arizona.
In abbreviated high school seasons, cut short by spring football practices, Marshall would run the 100 meters around 10.6 seconds. By training through a full season, he could have gotten down to the 10.4 range, his father believes. (UO freshman Thomas Tyner holds the Oregon high school record at 10.43 seconds.)
Marshall admits he has “a different kind of speed” than recent UO backs like LaMichael James, Kenjon Barner and Thomas. “I’m not a straight burner like all of them are,” Marshall said. “But I’m not getting caught in the open field.”
Witness Marshall’s first of three touchdowns in Oregon’s most recent win, over UCLA. He took a handoff to the right, cut upfield between pulling guard Hamani Stevens and tight end Pharaoh Brown, and was off to the races with a 40-yard scoring run. No Bruin defender was gaining on him when Marshall crossed the goal line.
“If you break away from a guy and you don’t get caught, that’s all that matters,” Campbell said. “He’s got that top-end speed that, nobody’s going to run him down.”
Marshall only showed that in brief bursts as a freshman last fall, and usually in a mop-up role. His longest carry was 32 yards, against Washington.
This offseason, coaches raved about Marshall’s development. He seemed to back that up with 124 yards on eight carries against Nicholls in Oregon’s 2013 opener. But then came the uninspiring day at Virginia; maybe Marshall wasn’t cut out to be the Ducks’ every down back after all?
In the Pac-12 opener against Cal, he was thrust into that role again, ready or not. Thomas sprained his ankle on the opening kickoff and didn’t return. Then, playing in a torrential downpour, Marshall had three early fumbles. Back at home, even Greg Marshall wondered if a few plays on the bench might serve him well.
But coaches stuck with Marshall, and teammates stuck by him. They were rewarded with 130 yards on 19 carries that night.
“I think that turned him into the kid he always was,” Greg Marshall said. “He’s a type of kid that doesn’t like to let his teammates down. That’s absolutely fueled him. Everybody understood what the weather was like, but to him that wasn’t excuse. He said, ‘Dad, I had to make sure I played up to my standards.'”
Marshall has run for at least 106 yards in each game since, including a career-high 192 against Washington State. In his last two outings, against the Cougars and Bruins, Marshall had six rushing touchdowns, giving him 12 for the season, tied for first nationally entering Oregon’s bye last week.
“He’s responded,” Greg Marshall said. “Having coached him all his life, that’s all it’s ever taken. If Byron knows you believe in him, and he’s believing in himself, he’s a pretty tough kid to beat.
“I’m just happy people are noticing now what we always knew.”