The Oregon Ducks have won their first two Pac-12 games by a combined score of 112-32, despite not having De'Anthony Thomas, who suffered an ankle injury on the opening kickoff last week against Cal.
Enter Byron Marshall.
In two starts, the 5'10, 207-pound sophomore has filled in nicely for Thomas. He has compiled 252 yards and two touchdowns on 42 carries, including 122 yards in Oregon's 57-16 road rout of the Colorado Buffaloes.
Oregon has layers of talent at every position, and running back is almost always the most talented of them all. But with Marshall and freshman Thomas Tyner, both mostly unproven, behind Thomas, things were still questionable.
The Ducks knew Marshall had talent, but prior to last week's game, he had yet to break out and establish his own identity. With two straight games of more than 100 rushing yards, Marshall is showing what he is capable of in his first stint as the primary ball-carrier.
Marshall doesn't have the top-end speed or moves of Thomas and recent Oregon running backs LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, and there's still room for him to grow. Still, his talent and high ceiling are obvious, and he looks as if he is positioning himself to be the Ducks' workhorse back of the future.
Playing in an torrential downpour last week against Colorado, Marshall fumbled twice in his first four carries. Fortunately, the Ducks were able to recover both of them. Once he got a grip on the ball, he never let go.
His confidence appears to be expanding, as he learns to trust his skills and the Oregon offensive line. As a freshman last year, Marshall was often hesitant to hit the hole. And earlier this season against Virginia and Tennessee, he seemed to revert to that tendency.
But when the Ducks needed him to step up and take over, he did just that. He seems to have learned that it is always better to cut your losses by running north and south as opposed to trying to make something out of nothing.
After starting off the season with 124 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries against Nicholls State, Marshall struggled against Virginia and Tennessee. It looked as if he was running timidly in those two games, the only contests of the season in which he failed to rush for 100 yards.
He didn't find the end zone on Saturday against Colorado, but he did gain 122 yards on 23 carries to lead the Ducks in rushing for the second week in a row. Oregon will need him to continue to run confidently in the coming weeks as the meat of the team's schedule begins next week at Washington.
Thomas is the biggest threat on a team full of weapons, and he usually becomes the focus of opposing defenses. The Ducks' remaining seven games features three ranked teams, and Marshall will be a big factor in how successfully the 2013 campaign ends for Oregon.
Marshall bounced back nicely after the early fumbles against Cal and has been steady ever since. If he and Oregon's latest breakout star, wide receiver and punt returner Bralon Addison, continue to elevate their play, the Ducks offense will become an even bigger headache for its opponents down the stretch.
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