ATHENS – What did Keith Marshall do with his time off? He lost weight. He re-evaluated his future. He changed his major.
He also swears he never thought about what might have been, if he hadn’t torn up his knee last year. How things would have been different for the Georgia football team, and its talented tailback.
“I wasn’t really ever sad,” Marshall said. “I always told people it’s part of the game, it happens. So you can’t dwell on it. You’ve gotta work back through it and get ready, see what you’re gonna do next year.”
Next year is now here. And here is Marshall, who all by accounts looks like his old self less than a year after knee surgery. In fact he might be a bit better. And yet his return to the fold has been one of the more overlooked part of Georgia’s preseason.
Marshall is almost the forgotten member of Georgia’s backfield. Todd Gurley gets the understandable attention. Freshman tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are the newest, hottest names.
That’s fine with Marshall.
“Todd has definitely earned that, the way he’s played the last couple years,” Marshall said. “The new guys, they’ve earned that, the new guys came in with hype and they’ve lived up to the hype, in my eyes so far.”
Then there is Marshall, who had nine touchdowns as a freshman, along with 759 rushing yards, and was on his way to another strong sophomore year before the second quarter at Tennessee. That’s when he took a screen pass to the left, and was hit at the knees by a Tennessee defender. His right ACL was torn, and his sophomore season was over in the fifth game.
It was one of many critical injuries to Georgia’s offense last year, with receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley also suffering torn ACLs. But while those two have taken awhile to heal and will not be available Saturday against Clemson, Marshall has long since been practicing without limitations.
Marshall is effusive in his praise of Ron Courson, Georgia’s longtime head athletic trainer, who would visit Marshall at the hospital at 3 a.m., just to make sure he was okay.
“I think Ron is the best in the business at what he does,” Marshall said.
The injured players became a mini-fraternity last year, hanging out together in the training room, rehabbing together, or wherever they congregated. Marshall said it gave him a chance to realize “that football isn’t forever.” He realized he wanted something more academically too, changing his major from management to finance.
“I felt like I wasn’t challenging myself, so I switched to something harder,” Marshall said.
Then spring football practice came around. Marshall knew he wouldn’t be doing much, but at one point during “run polish” drills he had a revelation: He felt fine. He felt back to normal.
So rather than just worry about staying healthy, Marshall worked on getting better. He may have averaged 6.5 yards-per-carry as a freshman (down to 4.4 as a sophomore), but his running style could improve: He had leaned forward too much, so if he ran more upright he could finish his runs better.
Gurley said early in preseason camp he could notice a difference in Marshall’s running.
"Last year this time somebody grabbed his legs he probably would have fallen,” Gurley said. “But he's driving his knees a lot more and finishing his runs."
And no, Marshall said wouldn’t worry about the knee when he got hit.
“I don’t think my mind works that way. If I’m out there I’ve gotta go hard,” Marshall said. “You could think about it, and play to try not to get hurt. And that’s when you get hurt.”