ATHENS -- All Keith Marshall wants to do is play football.
It’s why he returned to the field the moment he received medical clearance last season, even though pain lingered where he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament. In total, Marshall’s midseason ACL tear in 2013 has forced him to miss 18 of Georgia’s past 26 games.
With Marshall sidelined, Nick Chubb emerged as Georgia’s next running back star after running for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns as a freshman. Marshall’s close friend Todd Gurley, despite his own ACL tear in 2014, was picked by the St. Louis Rams with the 10th overall selection in the 2015 NFL draft. Sophomore running back Sony Michel even had a breakout game of his own, rushing for 155 yards and two touchdowns on only 10 carries in a win over Troy.
All Marshall could do was watch others play the game he loves. Declaring himself 100 percent, Marshall said he’s looking forward to displaying the kind of speed he was known for during a freshman campaign three seasons ago that saw him rush for 759 yards and eight touchdowns.
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“I’m confident in myself and my abilities,” Marshall said. “My biggest thing was getting healthy, and I’m healthy now.”
The concern with Marshall is whether he lost a step after going through ACL surgery and a lengthy rehab that featured a setback. Marshall admitted his knee injury is the sole reason he hasn’t been able to play and not anything else.
Wanting to show he can still play at this level, Marshall’s teammates said they believe his speed is back to where it was two years ago.
“I remember watching games,” said Chubb, who was a high school junior during Marshall’s freshman season at Georgia. “I remember he was very fast. I see that now.”
Marshall once clocked a 40-yard dash in the 4.3-second range and was among the highest-rated running backs in the country in high school at Millbrook in Raleigh, North Carolina. His career hasn’t gone to plan, considering he went from Georgia’s projected No. 1 runner to third-string -- albeit in a system that should spread plenty of carries to all three of Georgia’s top backs.
The injury and subsequent setback caused Marshall to, at minimum, reorganize his approach to college, with the fourth-year student switching majors from business management to finance while doing his part to network with connections in case football ultimately doesn’t work out for him.
“I still have the same outlook. I want the chance to play in the NFL because I believe I have the talent to do so,” Marshall said. “I don’t want to say it humbled me because I never felt like I was a cocky person. But it made it more of a realization that football can be taken away just like that. That’s why I switched my major. I tried to find other things so that after football I can still be very successful.”
Marshall said that when he and Gurley arrived at Georgia in 2012, both briefly discussed leaving together after their third year. Gurley was able to do so, but Marshall is still in Athens. Marshall said he holds no animosity at his situation. One source of help has been running backs coach Thomas Brown, who went through his own ACL injury during his playing days at Georgia. Brown, who was hired by Georgia in February, said the most important thing for Marshall was to clear that final remaining hurdle in the recovery process.
“He can definitely still go,” Brown said. “One thing I talked to him about in the spring was overcoming the mental adjustment of being injured. I’ve been there before and understand that sometimes coming back as a running back you’re thinking about what you’ve done before to be injured or thinking about reinjuring something. You got to get over that and control what you can control.”
By default, Marshall is the veteran leader of the running back group, even though he’s listed as a third-stringer with fewer career yards (1,029) and touchdowns (nine) than what Chubb totaled as a freshman. But Marshall is out to prove he can still be the back he was projected to be when he arrived on campus in 2012.
“He’s motivated; he’s the leader of the running back group,” Michel said. “He’s been here longer, and he’s got experience. He’s back, ready to play, and I think he’s 100 percent if you ask me. We expect to see great things.”