Niyo: Perseverance finally paying off for UM’s Marshall

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — He was playing, so that was an important first step. But he was running, too, and that was noteworthy as well.

As Michigan seized control of Saturday’s season opener against Florida, there was Lawrence Marshall — the former four-star recruit who’d spent most of his college career spinning his wheels — seizing the moment.

On third-and-4 from the Gators’ 31-yard line, quarterback Feleipe Franks was scrambling out of the pocket, and it was Marshall, the Wolverines’ 290-pound defensive lineman, giving chase. An end who has moved inside to tackle this offseason — and added 20 more pounds in the process — Marshall had one thought in mind, initially.

“To be honest, I wanted the sack,” Marshall said. “And as I was moving, I was thinking about diving for him. But I’m like, ‘I don’t think I’m gonna get him.’ ”

And then he remembered what his coaches — veteran defensive line coach Greg Mattison, in particular — spent the entire spring and summer screaming about on the practice field. Michigan’s defense, as dominant as it was in 2016, only managed six fumble recoveries last season.

“Coach Mattison always preaches, ‘Run to the ball, and you never know what you can find,’ ” Marshall said.

Sure enough, after safety Josh Metellus shook off a blocker to make an ankle tackle on Franks, the football came loose, and Marshall — still in pursuit — was in position to make a play. Of course, Florida receiver Brandon Powell was there as well, all 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds of him.

“But I was like, ‘Anybody in my way, I’m hitting,’ ” Marshall laughed. “He was in my way. I had to hit him.”

And after he sent Powell flying, he did dive, after all, pouncing on the football as the Michigan sideline erupted in celebration.

“It was amazing,” he said. “I was so excited.”

Almost as excited as his mother, Sylvia, who kept texting and calling after the game — five or six times, maybe more — to revel in the moment.

“She was just so happy,” he said, “that I finally made a play.”


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‘Perseverance is everything’

This has been a long time coming, to be sure. Marshall was one of Michigan’s top recruits in 2014, a talented pass rusher out of Southfield who’d spurned Ohio State and bypassed Michigan State, where prep teammate Malik McDowell eventually landed. But Marshall wasn’t prepared for what came next — the work, the grind, the competition — and he struggled to make his mark.

At the start of spring practice as a redshirt freshman in 2015, then-defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin noted “he could barely line up right.” And though the coaches intermittently praised his growth from there, he never found a way to push through. There were better players ahead of him, and players with better motors.

“I mean, it’s always hard, when you come in being the top recruit and don’t play,” said Marshall, who saw the field in just seven games the last two seasons combined.

“Everybody hits that low point. I didn’t have a good first year. Then you get to that third year and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ You hit that low point, but you’ve just got to keep fighting. Perseverance is everything. … I knew things were gonna turn eventually.”

Whether he really did or not, he knew Mattison was in his corner. He had been from the start, back when Marshall’s father and grandfather both died the summer before his senior year in high school. That’s a big reason why Marshall says he never seriously considered transferring.

“He was the guy who recruited me out of high school to be a big-time player,” Marshall said. “And he never gave up on me. I appreciate him for that. …

“With Coach Mattison, if he trusts you, then you’ll play. So I’ve just tried to gain his trust every way I could.”

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Making a move

That meant trusting Mattison when it came time to make another position switch, bulking up to move inside to defensive tackle. He’d started his Michigan career at 230 pounds, and gone from one end to the other up front in a hybrid pass-rushing role. But this was something altogether different. And it meant spending long hours learning the finer points of the three-technique position, most notably from senior Maurice Hurst, the All-Big Ten candidate in the middle of Michigan’s ferocious defensive front.

By all accounts, he has looked like a different player this summer — he’s getting off the ball quicker and with more force, his pad level is better, his motor isn’t idling the way it once did. Last week, defensive coordinator Don Brown noted Marshall “has vastly improved.” Mattison was saying the same thing, while admitting he didn’t want to “jinx” anything.

And then in Saturday's opener, the fourth-year junior went out and validated that praise, playing 14 snaps in relief of Hurst and recovering the fumble that set up Quinn Nordin’s final field goal, effectively putting the game out of reach at 26-17.

"There were some opportunities he had running to close holes on perimeter screen passes, (and) there’s Lawrence closing it up," head coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Great to see. He’s a great young man. Getting a taste of success really bodes well for him and our football team."

“Now in film if somebody doesn’t run to the ball, they’re going to use me as an example: ‘See how Lawrence got this fumble by running to the football?’” he said. “I mean, it’s incredible.

“Like my mom always told me, ‘You’ve got to trust the process.’ And that’s what I did. I trusted the process. Trusted Coach Mattison. And now it’s paying off.”