FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema believes there may be a wrestling match between his assistant coaches for Korliss Marshall’s services this offseason.
On one side is an offense that sees what the Osceola native can do in a limited role, breaking off big runs on a handful of carries. On the other is a defense that sorely needs an explosive safety, convinced Marshall can help them fill the role.
It’s too early to declare a winner, but Bielema and the rest of the coaching staff can agree about one thing: Marshall is going to make an impact wherever he ends up.
“First, is you can tell he’s an incredibly explosive player,” Bielema said. “The one thing he does, what he’s done on all those run plays or the returns, he hits the hole so much faster than everybody else and with a tremendous amount of power. I think that’s very, very evident. The second thing is, he’s just a willing soul, man. He’s a kid that is driven by success. …
“If you get that together, that combo, somebody that wants to be great and have the ability to do it, you’ve got somebody special.”
Arkansas believes it has been evident this season. Marshall hasn’t played extensive snaps, but has made the most of his opportunities as a ball carrier with Arkansas moving into its final two games. He is averaging 13.2 yards on five carries, providing an intriguing change of pace to regulars Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
Williams and Collins have been successful at following blockers, making cuts and wiggling their way for yards throughout the season. Marshall, on the other hand, simply runs full speed as soon as the ball touches his hands.
“He just brings that spark,” Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen said. “He has got that speed that a lot of people don’t have. He’s that little Energizer Bunny really. He touches the ball he’s running straight ahead. He’s north and south and runs with power and with speed to go with it that’s tough to stop. A lot of people take bad angles on him not thinking he can run like that and he really can.”
Arkansas knew Marshall was capable when he arrived on campus.
He practiced at both safety and running back earlier this summer before making a full-time move to offense after third-string tailback Nate Holmes suffered a minor injury. Arkansas first got Marshall involved as a kick returner, believing his straight-ahead speed would serve the Razorbacks well on special teams. They were right.
Marshall ran through a would-be tackler on his first kickoff return and raced for what was then a season-high 38 yards in Arkansas’ Southeastern Conference opener against Texas A&M. He added an 87-yarder against Auburn a few weeks ago, providing a big spark for an offense that had struggled to get into the end zone.
Marshall has had success with a limited running back package as well, putting together rushing plays of 16, 8, 7, 30 and 5 yards.
“We found a way to strategically put him in there and he had a little success,” Arkansas running backs coach Joel Thomas said. “The things he shows on Saturdays are the things that he’s sparked us at practices during the course of two-a-days a little bit here and there. You know we’ve got two pretty good (running backs) in front of him, but he offers a different element of speed out there.
“It’s almost that fight or flight syndrome that you see. He gets the ball and he just goes as fast as he can straight ahead. And he does a really nice job.”
Marshall — who appeared to be on his way to redshirting the season earlier this year — has enjoyed the opportunity to contribute as a ball carrier and kick returner. He also has embraced his role as the team’s spark plug.
“I know I’m going to bring effort,” Marshall said. “That’s one thing for sure. I’m going to bring effort. The one thing the coaches tell us is if you’re going to mess up, mess up doing it at 100 percent. That’s one thing I’m guaranteed to do even though I really don’t want to mess up. So that’s one thing I’m going to try to avoid.”
Marshall said earlier this year his long-term preference is playing safety, but added last week he’s willing to help the Razorbacks at any position they ask. Marshall also stressed that he’s comfortable playing either running back or safety.
He spent most of Arkansas’ bye week working at safety for the first time since his move to running back earlier this season. The Razorbacks don’t appear to have any plans to line Marshall up in the secondary during the final two games, though.
Arkansas will evaluate its options after the season and put Marshall in a place that will benefit them most. Thomas and the offense would love to keep him on that side of the ball, but defensive coordinator Chris Ash has a good argument as well.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to look out there and see that Korliss is explosive,” Ash said. “And if you’re going to win games in this league, you’d better have some explosive guys on defense. … I’m just telling you, if we’re going to win games, we’re going to need guys like him on defense.”
Could there be a compromise? Perhaps both sides of the ball could be satisfied with Marshall working as a two-way player for the Razorbacks next season.
Bielema certainly sounded open to the suggestion earlier this week.
Marshall liked the thought of it, too, as he wraps up his freshman season.
“That’ll be one thing I could say,” Marshall said. “I mean, play me at both. You can put me anywhere on the field and I guarantee you I’ll play that position, no matter what it is.”