PHILADELPHIA >> From the cover of Sports Illustrated to a late-season look with the Eagles, Byron Marshall was born to follow the road less traveled.
Each time Marshall seriusly doubts his direction in life there’s an indescribable gotcha moment. Take the SI cover in January of 2015.
After rushing for 1,038 yards as a sophomore at Oregon, Marshall was moved to wide receiver by Chip Kelly’s successor Mark Helfrich.
“I hated it at first,” Marshall said. “I was upset because it just came out of nowhere. I wasn’t expecting it. I was the leading rusher and I felt like I was ready to have a breakout year.”
A few months later Marshall was one of the cats who helped turn Marcus Mariota into the Heisman Trophy winner. Mariota helped Marshall become the first Pac 12 player to rush for 1,000 yards one season and amass 1,000 receiving yards in another.
The angst over the position change was long over when Marshall, getting ready to play Ohio State in the BCS championship game, was deluged with so many text messages he prayed it wasn’t a family emergency.
“I’m in a meeting and my phone was going crazy, just text after text,” Marshall said. “Eight, nine. I didn’t know what was going on. I’m thinking something was going on back at home. Then I started seeing random numbers. When I checked it, I was, ‘alright!’ I was just happy. It’s an honor. It’s a huge honor.”
Marshall framed the cover of himself sent by SI, the photographer catching him in a Heisman-type pose. It didn’t go well for the Ducks in the title game, as the Buckeyes rolled to a 59-20 victory. That wasn’t because of Marshall, who had eight catches for 169 yards and one touchdown.
Marshall’s senior year didn’t work out, as he suffered a season-ending knee injury requiring surgery in September. The position switch and the knee created enough conflict that he wasn’t drafted.
The Eagles liked what they saw on film, and now, offensive coordinator Frank Reich was remarking how Marshall has a knack for creating wow moments with moves and catches at practice.
When the Eagles take on the Baltimore Ravens and their top-ranked run defense Sunday, Marshall and Kenjon Barner — the standard at running back when he arrived at Oregon — could be on the field together.
“It is what it is,” Marshall said. “I’m not looking back. I think everything happens for a reason. It’s just funny how things work. I’ve just got to trust God. He moved me to receiver and it worked out for the best. Halfway through the season I was like, ‘this is a blessing in disguise.’ It made me a much better player.”
Injuries unquestionably factored into the opportunity the 5-9, 200-pound Marshall will get as the Eagles lost rookie fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood to a knee injury, and veteran Darren Sproles is out with a concussion.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson wouldn’t rule out an expanded role.
“It’s possible but you know, just sometimes you don’t really know until you get into the game and how you want to use him,” Pederson said. “But he’s very capable and understands our offense extremely well. One of the reasons why we brought him up, is he’s been in our meetings all year. He’s listened to the terminology. He’s seen the guys in front of him play. So we have a lot of confidence in him getting some reps in the game.”
Marshall’s progress with the Eagles is all the more remarkable in that this the first year the undrafted rookie learned how to block at running back, and how to study a playbook.
Those jokes about the simplicity of the Kelly offense apparently were true. Marshall said the college experience starting with Kelly, who recruited him, was “just signals, I didn’t have a playbook.
“It wasn’t like you could take this binder home and look at plays,” Marshall said. “You learned on the fly. At least that’s how I did. So now it’s my first time getting a playbook and having to memorize it. It’s different. I haven’t heard a play called in years. But it was a fun challenge. I couldn’t stay in my comfort zone. I learned so much this year. I’m way past, ‘oh shoot, what do I do on this play?’ Even on practice squad, I paid attention in meetings and asked questions.”
Marshall has watched enough tape of the Ravens to understand they play physically and will try to intimidate him.
“They play hard, they play fast, they try to confuse you out there,” Marshall said. “Just make sure I go out there and keep my head and have fun while I’m doing it. I’m ready for the real test. The bullets are live. I’ve been playing the game since I was six. So it’s nothing too different.”
Did we mention that Terrell Suggs and the Ravens like to get in one’s face and spew invective?
“I’ll talk back,” Marshall said. “That’s what makes this so fun. Everybody at this level is real good and everybody is so competitive. And I like that. Me, trash talking doesn’t really get in my head. I kind of embrace it. It makes me play that much harder.”
The way Marshall sees it, there’s a reason his NFL career has to start against the Ravens. One day, the answer will hit him, just like that SI cover spread.