When watching Arkansas' game against Ole Miss last Saturday, there was a running play in which the Arkansas running back raced down the right sideline for a big 30-yard gain, and the announcers said it was Jonathan Williams. My only thought was "I've never seen Williams run that fast."
Don't get me wrong, Williams has great speed, and he's used it to break a couple of long touchdown runs this season. But the guy on screen was moving a bit faster than what I remember seeing from Williams or Arkansas' other star running back, freshman Alex Collins.
Sure enough, after the play was over and the running back jumped off the ground and was congratulated by teammates, his #33 became clear and everyone realized that it was actually freshman Korliss Marshall instead of Williams.
It was the first of Marshall's three carries that day, on which he averaged 14 yards apiece for a total of 42. It's the first time this season he's gotten multiple handoffs in a single game. He's been a kickoff returner for Arkansas since the Texas A&M game, and received one rushing attempt in both the A&M and Florida games (which went for 16 and 8 yards, respectively), but had not gotten a carry since. Needless to say, people took notice of his performance in Oxford.
Korliss Marshall looks like he was shot out of a cannon every time he touches the ball.
Korliss Marshall looks like he was shot out of a cannon every time he touches the ball.— Robbie Neiswanger (@NWARobbie) November 9, 2013
It was a great follow-up to Marshall's big kickoff return against Auburn the previous week. The 87-yard return in the third quarter set up Arkansas' first touchdown since the opening drive of the South Carolina game.
The thing that was surprising about the Ole Miss game is that just a couple of weeks earlier, Bielema announced that Marshall was going to move back to safety. When Marshall committed to Arkansas in February, most expected him to be a defensive back on the team, and considering Williams and Collins have been playing well, the need for another freshman running back theoretically hasn't been there.
That being said, it's safe to say Arkansas' safeties this season haven't been, let's say, good. And we haven't yet seen Marshall on the field at the position to make any sort of adequate judgment on his abilities as a defensive back. He certainly has the physical attributes to play the position, but apparently hasn't learned it to the point the coaches feel comfortable putting him on the field during games. Marshall was mostly a running back in high school, rushing for over 4,100 yards and 60 touchdowns at Osceola, and it appears played some defensive back, but apparently not extensively.
The question is then, how long should Arkansas give Marshall for him to learn the safety position as opposed to letting him spend more time on offense?
One of the criticisms of the Petrino era was that he put pretty much all of his best athletes on offense as opposed to defense (remember Joe Adams was a 4* prospect at cornerback), and that's one of the reasons Arkansas' defense is so depleted right now, so perhaps the coaches should leave Marshall at safety and not look back?
It may be worth remembering, in 2005, Arkansas returned a star sophomore in Peyton Hillis and recruited a highly rated out-of-state running back in Felix Jones, so, like now, they really didn't need a third running back. Darren McFadden was initially expected to play safety, but the coaches realized quickly he offered too much potential on offense, so the coaches moved him and the rest is legend.
Let's be clear, we're not suggesting Marshall is the second coming of McFadden (he would not have been caught on that kickoff return vs Auburn), but there are similarities in the situation. One big difference, however, is that Arkansas was in a much better defensive situation in 2005 than they are right now. The team desperately needs playmakers on that side of the ball.
Marshall has clear value on offense at this point, but we've not yet seen what he can do on defense. What's the best way to maximize his potential? Is it possible for Arkansas to have special packages for him on offense while also letting him be able to play regularly on defense? If he works solely on defense through the offseason, but still can't crack the playing rotation with some other pretty weak safeties, do they leave him there and hope he develops later on? Or do they move him back to running back full time?
We do know Marshall can get physical. Look at him run through this A&M would-be tackler on a kickoff return against the Aggies, which was his debut game as a Razorback:
Like many of Arkansas' freshmen, Marshall will be a fun one to watch over the next few years. Unlike most of the other freshmen, we're not yet completely sure what part he'll be playing, but the potential is clearly there.