BY DARREN REESE
At first glance, the running back position at Tusculum College seems like a lonely job.
The Pioneers are known for their high-flying aerial assault, led by 2010 Harlon Hill Trophy finalist Bo Cordell. That season, the Pioneers averaged almost as many pass attempts per game (55.3) as they did rushing yards (59.8).
But for the Tusculum running backs, the job is anything but boring. As senior Brian Marshall, who led the team with 395 rushing yards on just 69 carries last year, quickly found out, you better be able to contribute something on every play or you won't see the field on game day.
"You learn to be very unselfish in this offense," said Marshall, a 2012 All-South Atlantic Conference Preseason Selection. "My freshman year, I was told, 'if you can't cut block, you can't play'."
"You have to be ready at all times. I practice running, practice catching, practice blocking. Sometimes I can go a whole game without getting a carry. But getting 14 cut blocks is just as good in my book, as long as it helps my team get the W."
Marshall and company will face one of their biggest tests of the season this Saturday when they go up against a Catawba team (2-1 overall, 0-1 SAC) that currently ranks fourth in the country in rushing defense (38.33 ypg).
The game marks the beginning of South Atlantic Conference play for the Pioneers. Kick-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Shuford Stadium. The live radio broadcast can be heard locally on WSMG 1450 AM.
"This is your typical Catawba football team that we will see Saturday," Tusculum running backs coach Caleb Slover said. "They are going to line up four guys down and let those big guys go to work."
"They are really good up front and have solid linebackers. It will be a tremendous challenge for us to see what we are made of."
Marshall is hoping to carry the momentum over from his performance last week in which he totaled 258 all-purpose yards in a 33-21 win over North Greenville. He finished with 90 yards rushing, 54 receiving and 114 on returns.
Marshall's 89-yard kick-off return early in the fourth quarter helped set up the Pioneers' go-ahead touchdown. He leads the SAC in both kick-off and punt return average.
"Who ever would have imaged that he would be leading the conference in both?" Tusculum head coach Frankie DeBusk asked.
"I would say (Brian) has been our biggest surprise this year. We knew he was going to be good, but I didn't know he would be able to perform the way he has the first three games."
When he's healthy, Marshall adds a special dimension to the Pioneers' offense. He is one of the fastest guys on the team, and when he gets in space he creates havoc for opposing defense.
The challenge for the coaching staff has been to keep Marshall fresh. At 5-foot-7, 180 pounds, he can take a beating as an every-down back.
Last week, he touched the ball 24 times and was feeling the effects of it earlier this week.
"The first couple of days I was pretty sore, but I went to the trainer and am pretty much back to full speed," Marshall said. "I haven't had many games like that since high school."
Marshall's performance was key, considering the Tusculum backfield has been depleted with injuries in the early going this year. Running backs Chad Blakely and B.J. Spradlin were unavailable against North Greenville, and DeBusk isn't sure how much those two will be able to go this week.
"We are just beat and banged back there a little bit right now," DeBusk said. "They have to do a lot back there. Not only are they running backs, but they are receivers, in pass protection they are sort of an extension of the offensive line.
"They are a little bit of everything. They are going to be banged up. We try to be cautious with them trhough the week. We don't do a lot with them in practice, from a full speed standpoint."
Marshall is trying to become the first player in Tusculum history to record both 1,000 career rushing yards and receiving yards in his career. He needs just 57 and 81 yards, respectively.
Slover is happy to see Marshall having such a productive season, particularly because the senior has been so unselfish during his career.
"Brian has matured so much over the past couple of years," Slover said. "He has gotten really good at accepting what's going on and not hanging his head."
"He steps in there and keeps trying until he makes it work."
And even though the offense lives and dies on the arm of Cordell, the coaching staff sees Marshall as one of the key leaders on the field.
"We can't ask Bo to be everything," Slover said. "He is our quarterback. He has to get us lined up and get us in the right plays."
"That's what I try to instill in our backs. We have to be leaders. When we run the ball, we have to be productive. If we need to stand in protection and open up routes down field, that's what we are going to do. We also have to motivate guys and get everybody going. Brian has really taken those roles and ran with them this year."