Marshall Catches On At Receiver — And In The Slot, And at Tight End, And ...
by Rob Moseley
LOS ANGELES — Among the jubilant Ducks parading to the visitors' locker room in the basement of Oregon State's Gill Coliseum this season, following the Ducks' Civil War victory, was junior Byron Marshall.
A bottleneck slowed the procession to a near stand-still, and so a UO staff member leaned in to acknowledge Marshall, who had just caught six passes for 131 yards and touchdown against the Beavers. "If you're not careful," the staffer said, "you're going to end up as a 1,000-yard receiver this year." Marshall responded with a wide smile: "That's the plan."
As the Ducks enter Thursday's Rose Bowl, Marshall is on the precipice of an unprecedented feat in school history. One year after rushing for 1,038 yards as a sophomore, Marshall leads Oregon with 814 receiving yards in 2014. With a big finish to this season, he could become the first Duck ever to reach 1,000 yards in a single season both rushing and receiving.
"His ability as a runner is what makes him so effective as a receiver," quarterback Marcus Mariota said. "Once he gets the ball in his hands, he's such a dynamic playmaker that he has a chance to score every time he touches it. We do have to find ways to get Byron the ball. With his versatility as a receiver, and the opportunities we have to bring him back into the backfield, really makes him a huge asset for us."
For the Oregon offense in 2014, Marshall has plugged every potential gap that has arisen. During spring drills, Bralon Addison was injured, and so Marshall began taking reps as a slot receiver. Late in the fall, Pharaoh Brown was hurt, and Marshall learned the "Y" tight end position as well.
Solely a running back in 2013, Marshall can now play that position as well as the two wide receiver spots ("X" and "Z"), in the slot ("R") and also tight end. "Knock on wood, hopefully no one else goes down," Marshall said. "But just being versatile I guess is a benefit to the team."
The presence of Thomas Tyner at running back afforded UO offensive coordinator Scott Frost and staff the luxury of trying Marshall at slot receiver in the wake of Addison's injury. Once Royce Freeman arrived on campus, there was even more freedom to expand Marshall's skill set.
Used to having the ball in his hands as a feature back, Marshall took some time to embrace a position change. But at this point, "I've learned to love it," Marshall said Tuesday.
"I think it took him a little bit," Mariota said. "I'm sure he can answer that question a little better, but once he found out his role, he took it in stride and really changed and became a team player. He's made so many plays for us this year, and it's a credit to his ability to work hard and battle through a little bit of adversity."
Marshall's transition owes some credit to Mariota, too. The quarterback was instrumental in helping Marshall learn his new position — make that "positions" — over the course of the year.
"He's come a long way," Mariota said. "At first he was having a hard time with different formations, figuring out where to line up. Now he's telling the younger guys where to line up, and he's the guy leading the charge outside."
Even after taking reps in the slot late in the spring, Marshall wasn't certain what role UO coaches planned for him entering 2014. He found out along with Oregon fans everywhere in the Ducks' opener, in which Marshall caught eight passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns against South Dakota.
"He was always a back, and his brother (Cameron, who played at Arizona State) was a back, so I think maybe at first (he was skeptical)," receiver Devon Allen said. "But once he started getting a lot of catches, a lot of reps and chances, he started to like it a little bit."
The South Dakota game was the first of eight so far this season in which Marshall led the Ducks in receptions, either alone or tied with a teammate. His 61 catches are 20 more than the current runner-up, Allen, and Marshall leads Allen in yards as well, by 130.
Blocking is essential from UO receivers, too; the group keeps track of pancakes, "decleaters" and blocks that spring teammates for touchdowns. Allen leads that category but, he said, "I'm only winning because I have the most plays played. If it's decleats per play, it would probably be Charles Nelson or Byron up there winning."
Now a full season into the transition to receiver, there's little Marshall can't do. He earned more respect for how quick he picked up some tight end assignments in the absence of Brown late in the year. "I'm still kind of all over the place, trying to figure out what I'm doing" at that position, Allen said. "To have Byron figure it out so quickly, and then he just dominates at the position, is pretty cool."
Is Marshall a receiver? Is he a running back? "I just think of myself as an athlete," Marshall said. "I think I can be successful lining up everywhere." For the Ducks in 2014, Marshall has proven that at every turn.