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Unsung heroes of 2014: Oregon's Byron Marshall

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Heading into 2014 Oregon had a logjam at RB and a dearth of playmaking WR's on what needed to be an explosive offense, so Byron Marshall filled the gap.

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

In the 2013 season, running back Byron Marshall accounted for 1193 total yards and 14 touchdowns as a part of Oregon's 7th ranked (by S&P) offense.

In the 2014 season, Byron Marshall has accounted for 1143 total yards and seven touchdowns as a part of Oregon's 3rd ranked offense...while playing a different position. His transformation from being a primary weapon at running back to becoming Mariota's leading receiver has keyed the Ducks' run towards the Pac-12 title and, if they win that crown, he'll be a major factor in the first college football playoff.

The situation

Heading into 2014 the Ducks were delighted to return Marcus Mariota and all five of their OL in what was certain to be an excellent offensive unit, despite losing stud WR Bralon Addison before the season begun. Meanwhile, they returned Marshall and fellow back Thomas Tyner (711 rushing yards at 6.2 ypc in 2013) while adding blue-chip freshman back Royce Freeman.

Given the loss of their 2014 leading receiver (Josh Huff) and his most likely replacement (Addison), the Ducks were facing quite a pickle in determining what to feature on their 2014 team. Obviously the running game was going to be a big part of the Duck identity but when you have a Heisman candidate QB, you don't want to abandon the pass.

Then a rash of injuries devastated the Duck OL and made the ability to feature Mariota and the passing game even more essential to Duck success.

So it was that Byron Marshall stepped into the void left by Bralon Addison and became Oregon's leading receiver for the 2014 season boosting his receptions from 13 for 155 yards in 2013 to 56 for 791.

Perhaps most impressively, Marshall's average of 10.6 yards per target compares favorably to big time receivers like West Virginia's Kevin White or Alabama's Amari Cooper despite the fact that Marshall lines up in the slot rather than out wide.

How did he do that?

Some of the ways in which Oregon has utilized Marshall's talent out at receiver are fairly obvious and predictable. The 5'10", 210 pounder is built like a running back and they use him as a perimeter RB in their slotback position.

For instance, here against Oregon St. he begins lined up as an H-back:

Marshall flare 1

Then they motion him across the formation to form a trips set where he can more easily get out into a passing pattern and is facing a linebacker rather than a cornerback.

Marshall flare 2

Oregon St barely seems prepared for this and their safeties and linebackers don't rotate at all in response to the flanking maneuver that Oregon is about to make against them, apparently trusting the Sam linebacker to run with Marshall.

The Ducks then flare him out even wider after the snap to catch a quick flare screen on the perimeter:

Marshall flare 3

The linebacker is picked off by the other slot receiver who's basically executing down block in space while the safeties are in pass-first mode and can't arrive in time to try and effectively corral Marshall.

Because of his lateral quickness and open field moves as a former RB, Marshall is predictably effective on these types of concepts in which he's essentially a running back lined out wide who's blockers are receivers and open space rather than the traditional big boys who opened holes for him in 2013.

Where Marshall has been shockingly effective is in running traditional WR routes from the slot position. Typical spread offenses use their slot receiver as a weapon in the quick passing game and look to use players with great start-stop and lateral quickness to throw timing routes that are difficult for slower linebackers or safeties to cover up.

That Marshall would have the quickness to thrive in such a role isn't surprising, but his mastery of the slot receiver route tree and timing necessary to execute these concepts is impressive. As is his catching ability either in traffic or on the run. Here's an instance where Oregon lines up him in the slot like Wes Welker or any other classical slot receiver.

The Ducks are playing rival Oregon St, who are in a very conservative cover 4 in which the linebackers will take the flats and the corners and safeties are just looking to stay on top of the receivers.

Marshall curl 1

Marshall is the 2nd receiver from the top matched against a safety with 12 yards in between them. Oregon will run a variety of "curl-flat" in which the outside receiver will run a quick hitch route in the flat while Marshall runs a vertical stem route to keep that safety honest before settling in a soft part of the zone and turning around:

Marshall curl 2

Since the linebacker is the flat defender he's on his horse trying to get out to the flat to contest the quick hitch to another speedy Duck, but since his back is turned he can't contest the potential throw to the curl route by Marshall. The middle linebacker has been kept in the box by a play-action fake from the Ducks and is also out of position to defend that pass.

Meanwhile Marshall has run into a perfect spot in front of the safety and away from the possible contest of the corner. Mariota hits him and it's an easy first down for the Ducks.

This play perfectly sets up Marshall later in the game. The Ducks are in a trips set on 3rd and 7 against a third down package from the Beavers. Marshall is matched up on a safety again and the Beaver DB tries to run with him in the open field rather than surrendering space for Byron to work in:

His running back's acceleration and fluidity down the field make him a fantastic target on "4 verticals" plays where he can simply cut and run past defenders into open grass. He's not a huge target downfield but he can put himself in position to make catches that are hard to defend simply through positioning and sheer speed.

Of course, if a DB misses a tackle or he shakes them off with his running back skill set, he's gone. Touchdown.

That's how a converted running back manages to match a player like Amari Cooper in yards per target as a receiver. Although he's not usually running vertical routes in this offense, his power and quickness allow him to consistently devastate defenses with yards after the catch.

Oregon was looking at a 2014 season in which they had a stud QB and a veteran OL but they needed skill players to feature and for Mariota to use in putting together a Heisman campaign. You can only assume that their rep-intensive approach to practices is to be praised for getting Marshall schooled up in that position in such a brief period of time but credit must also go to Marshall for showing the willingness and the skill to make it work.

Most of the press about Oregon will revolve around their freshman 1k yard running back or Mariota, but without Byron Marshall's stunning ability to master the slot receiver role in an offseason and clear out the logjam of talent at running back, where would the Ducks be?