Sept. 8, 2017
Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart
The rainbow of rubber bands runs up each wrist, five to a side, a brightly colored accoutrement for a mostly low-key kid.
Quarterback TaQuon Marshall started wearing wrist bands in high school and has added to his collection ever since. The junior keeps them on at all times, even during games.
On Monday, they framed hands that gave a breathtaking debut performance against No. 25 Tennessee at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Making his first-career start in front of 75,000 fans, Marshall rushed for 259 yards on 44 carries and five touchdowns. He added another 120 yards passing. A 42-41 double-overtime loss to the Volunteers did little to dull the awe over the Hamilton, Ga., native’s debut.
“I’ve got a lot of praise for him. TaQuon makes plays with the ball in his hands. No matter if it’s a broken play or the play is designed,” said B-back KirVonte Benson.
“Since his freshman year, we knew he could play. Now he’s got his shot at quarterback. It’s no surprise to me at all the way he’s playing,” added A-back Nathan Cottrell.
Marshall himself seemed unsatisfied.
“It’s still going to be in the back of my mind that we should have won. But I’ve got to move on from this and get ready for next week,” he said on Monday.
Marshall rehashed his performance again Wednesday, his hands gripping Georgia Tech’s media lectern. His rubber bands are arrayed with slogans, wrapping around his wrists in different colors and fonts. They’re part fashion statement, part motivational reminder – hard to read from a distance but each one lending an insight into what drives him.
Those wrist bands, and the slogans on them, might also be the best way to explain what led to Marshall’s performance on Monday and what lies ahead for him, now that expectations have soared almost overnight.
BE YOUR BEST
The most garish one, in lime green on his right wrist, serves as a fitting coda to his night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Marshall’s 249 rushing yards obliterated the Tech record for rushing yards by a quarterback, set 74 years ago by Eddie Prokop in the 1944 Sugar Bowl (1943 season). He smashed an ACC record for rushing yards by a quarterback, set in 2015 by future Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville. The ACC named him its Offensive Back of the Week.
The numbers may have been shocking in their unexpectedness, but the decision to start Marshall wasn’t. While head coach kept the identity of his starter a secret to the media, Marshall knew he’d be taking the first snap three weeks ago.
“I was very excited knowing that we were opening up at Mercedes-Benz Stadium and it was going to be a big game,” he said. “I told my parents and they were excited for me. But then after that, I knew I still needed to work. There were a lot of things that I still needed to work on, and just still build the chemistry with the guys around me and make sure we were all going to be on the same page when it came time to play.”
Much of the talk in preseason centered around who would replace Justin Thomas, a veteran of 38 starts who finished his Tech career ranked fourth in school history in total yards. Thomas, now on the practice squad of the Pittsburgh Steelers, spoke with Marshall before the game.
His message: “Go out there and have fun. Believe in the preparation and you’ll be fine,” Marshall recalled.
His debut may have ended in defeat but his former teammate still came away impressed. Afterwards, Marshall scrolled through his texts to find another message from Thomas.
“He said I looked like I knew what I was doing out there,” he said. “I just laughed about it.”
Another of Marshall’s wrist bands conveys a modest message. Tech’s first two drives, a pair of three-and-outs that netted 11 yards, might have looked underwhelming. But Marshall said they were important in helping him settle down.
“I was kind of shaky. My nerves were up. The third drive came and I relaxed and I calmed down. The guys were rallying around me. They had confidence in me. I had confidence in them. Then we kind of just got rolling,” he said.
His first long run, he recalls, was the moment he felt the game slow down.
“After that I said okay, I can see how fast they’re running, how fast they’re moving. I can see my blocks really well. My vision is pretty [good] right now. I was like, `Okay, I think we’ll be fine,'” Marshall said.
The momentum didn’t stop, achingly, until the final play of the game. But after a shaky first few series, Marshall proved he could be trusted in the pressure cooker of a tight game.
The wristband that might as well double as a rallying cry for the under-recruited. Marshall posted big numbers at Harris County High School in Hamilton, Ga., throwing for 18 touchdowns and rushing for 12 more as a senior. Running a zone-read option scheme, he accounted for almost as many passing yards (1,376) as rushing yards (1,436). Yet most colleges – perhaps because of his lithe, 5-10, 180-pound frame – projected him as something else.
So how many FBS programs wanted Marshall as a quarterback?
His eyes searched into the middle distance for an answer. “None. No other schools wanted me as a quarterback. It was all DB (defensive back) and receiver,” he said.
He began his Georgia Tech career at A-back after injuries wracked that position in 2015. He returned to quarterback before the start of the 2016 season.
Marshall didn’t have many opportunities to showcase his arm on Monday, a point acknowledged by Johnson afterwards (at one point the Yellow Jackets ran 34-straight rushing plays). Marshall said he’s eager to see if Johnson will dial up more passes against Jacksonville State.
After his dazzling performance against Tennessee, though, Marshall proved he had the chops to lead a team at quarterback – something other college programs struggled to envision.
“I never thought I didn’t belong at this level,” he said.
The wrist band that bears the name of a friend’s clothing line. That phrase might have been tested on Tuesday.
The morning after the Tennessee game, Marshall said, “I was very sore. I could barely roll out of bed. Then when I did get up, I told myself, `You need to go ahead and go to treatment so you can try to get better and rest up for Saturday.'”
Treatment was a given; Marshall was on the field for 94 of the Yellow Jackets’ 96 offensive plays. His 44 rushing attempts broke a 28 year-old school record. Johnson answered questions afterwards about his quarterback’s unusually heavy work load.
“They ran the `Mike’ linebacker the whole game. They just lined him up seven yards deep and ran, so they were playing with virtually four guys inside and we were just following the B-back with a quarterback and run it in there. You know, it was what it was. If they play that way, the quarterback is going to carry the ball some,” the Jackets’ head coach said.
Marshall might not get as many carries Saturday but it won’t figure to get any easier. Not only will he have to contend with a short rest, but a Jacksonville State defense that ranked fifth in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision last year in rush defense (89.3 yards per game allowed). The Gamecocks return nine starters from that unit, including reigning Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year Darius Jackson, the school’s all-time sacks and tackles for loss leader. FCS statistics can sometimes be a funhouse mirror but Marshall knows better after studying the film. “Their defensive ends are pretty long and they can fly around and get to the ball,” he remarked.
After a school-record 44 carries against Tennessee, he’ll look to stay unbroken on Saturday.
HUMBLE OVER HYPE
His thickest wristband also has the boldest font, its white block lettering stretching almost entirely around his wrist. As sore as he felt Tuesday, Marshall also woke up in a far different orbit than the one he occupied 24 hours earlier.
Such are the spoils of bursting onto the scene in a game running unopposed on national television. ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit tweeted his admiration:
— Kirk Herbstreit (@KirkHerbstreit) September 5, 2017
Former Georgia running back Todd Gurley, now with the National Football League’s Los Angeles Rams, crossed rivalry lines to tweet:
Marshall won’t be denied. #heartofchampion
— Todd Gurley II (@TG3II) September 5, 2017
The respect even crossed over to other sports: Marshall was tickled when he saw Portland Trail Blazers guard Evan Turner tweet:
TaQuan Marshall is doing work! #GT
— Evan Turner (@thekidet) September 5, 2017
Now comes the tricky part for Marshall: managing the increased attention and not believing he’s arrived after just one game. Choosing humility over the hype.
The second part shouldn’t be a problem. The fumble that led to a Tennessee touchdown in the second quarter still gnaws at him. Same with the missed read that cost the Yellow Jackets a potential game-winning two-point conversion in double overtime. Marshall says his stat line, however gaudy, still doesn’t mask the many ways he can improve.
“My vision, my reads. Making better decisions with the pitch. Throwing better balls – catchable balls. Things like that. Just the small things that can turn into big things,” he explained.
On the surface, his big-stage performance stands in stark contrast to his upbringing in Hamilton, a town of 1,100 people 20 minutes from the Alabama border (not named after the 1998 Heisman Trophy runner-up, but fitting nonetheless). There, Marshall enjoys all the pleasures of small-town living: bonfires, fishing for catfish, catching up with friends and familiar faces. He shelved one of his favorite lake activities, wakeboarding, over the summer (a wipeout on the water might have hurt his chances in a quarterback competition).
But starring in a small town also gave Marshall his first taste at life in a fishbowl. The experience may be on a much larger scale now but he’s confident he can handle it. For that he credits his mom, Tiffany, who gave him impromptu media training dating back to his middle-school football days.
“I guess it really started in the seventh or eighth grade because I got a little bit of exposure, knowing that we’re in a small little town,” he said. His mom started to give him advice on how to conduct himself in the spotlight. He recalled those lessons again this week – “Watch what you post. Watch what you say. It can always affect you later on in life.”
His next start comes on Saturday at Bobby Dodd Stadium (12:30 p.m. EST, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network), marking off a heady last five days for the Yellow Jackets’ junior. At the beginning of the week, Tech fans were nervous, cautious – perhaps even uneasy – over what the future held at quarterback. Life and expectations can change quickly, often in tandem, as TaQuon Marshall now knows.
Amid the whirlwind, he’ll try to deliver. But whether cradling the ball or cocking back to throw, Marshall’s wrist bands will be close by, carrying messages that he hopes will both keep him grounded and propel him to greater heights.