Granted, there’s much more to playing running back in the NFL than bench press reps or even dazzling 40-yard dash times. Still, the news of out the NFL scouting combine this week regarding Keith Marshall was uplifting and inspiring.
Marshall's 40-time of 4.31 seconds was the best of all players at the combine. (Alabama's Kenyan Drake was third at 4.45.) And that was despite stumbling a step in the first few yards. Marshall also impressed with his upper body strength. Marshall led all running backs (excluding fullbacks) with 25 reps on the bench press.
So what does it mean? Maybe nothing. Lots of combine stars fail to enjoy meaningful NFL careers. This assessment from ESPN analysts Steve Muench and Kevin Weidl is dead on:
"Nothing will have a greater impact on Marshall's stock than how he checks out medically this week. He has an extensive injury history, including two ACL tears in his right knee in 2013 and 2014. In addition, he didn't look natural running routes and catching the ball. But after entering Indy as a fringe draft pick, Marshall greatly improved his chances of getting a shot with an NFL team."
Never miss a local story.
A shot. That is all Marshall wants. That is why he gave up his senior year of college football even though he had been granted a medical redshirt for 2014, when he played in only three games.
A shot. That's more than most people thought Marshall ever would have after that bitter October Saturday in Knoxville, when one play changed Marshall's career and his life,
"I have been dreaming about this my whole life -- watching it on TV," he said at the combine. "It's just a blessing to be here."
To appreciate how good Marshall once was, consider Todd Gurley. No, not so much the fact that some recruiting analysts rated Marshall much higher than Gurley when they were the two best running backs in North Carolina. We know recruiting ratings are unreliable. Since we brought that up, though, it's worth noting that some analysts rated Marshall one of the top five players in the country regardless of position out of Millbrook High in Raleigh.
Even after a summer of daily workouts at Georgia and a month of preseason competition, they were almost inseparable going into their freshman seasons in 2012. They were so linked that they earned the nickname Gurshall, though both despised it, and understandably so.
Gurley would soon pull away from the competition. Two players probably kept Gurley from being the national Freshman of the Year. One was the eventual Heisman winner, Johnny Manziel. The other was Marshall. His production off the bench (117 carries, 759 yards) cut into Gurley's numbers (222, 1,385). In fact, Marshall's 6.487 yards per carry led all SEC running backs, just ahead of Alabama's Eddie Lacy with 6.480
Even though Gurley was the best freshman running back in college football, many thought Marshall was a close second. He even started over Gurley in the Capital One Bowl against Nebraska, the reward for a good month of practice.
All that was despite the fact that Marshall was never fully healthy as a freshman. When Gurley sprained his ankle against LSU in 2013, it looked like that would be Marshall's time to shine. That's when it all changed, on what appeared to be a routine swing pass to Marshall. Here's the irony. Marshall should have been wide open. That's exactly what quarterback Aaron Murray was thinking. The play was designed to take the cornerback deep. Murray expected Marshall to be open, so that's where he threw the ball.
But the Tennessee cornerback was Cameron Sutton, a freshman. He let the receiver go uncovered and came barrelling in on Marshall. A huge mistake by Sutton and a bad read by Murray led to an unfortunate -- and devastating -- hit on Marshall's right knee.
Marshall worked hard to come back in 2014, but he clearly wasn't the same player. A knee sprain and ankle sprain limited him to three games. The emergence of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel buried him on Georgia's depth chart. He was somewhat productive last season with 350 yards on 68 carries.
If there's such thing as an upside to a career-threatening injury, it is this. He learned the importance of relying on something other than football to excel in life. He has a degree in finance.
"Obviously, it changed my life. It changed everything, really," he told reporters before last season's Tennessee game. "I got more serious about certain things. Academics. Because you realize football can be taken away just like that. I think I've grown from it. I wouldn't say I'm glad it happened. But I've definitely grown from it, I've learned a lot of lessons, become a better person."
Maybe one day that degree in finance will come in handy. For now, he just wants to realize his dream of playing in the NFL. His combine performance had to open some eyes. Good for him. He deserves a bit of good luck for a change.
-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him st firstname.lastname@example.org