Thursday September 18th, 2008

AUBURN, Ala. -- Though he's a 6-foot-1 defensive tackle who projects as a top-10 NFL draft pick, two legendary Sen'Derrick Marks stories take place on a basketball court. Both stories are true, but certain details of each remain a matter of some debate. Still, the tales should give LSU offensive linemen pause as they prepare to block Marks on Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Story No. 1:

In December 2004, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville traveled to the Mobile area to check in on some prospects. An assistant suggested Tuberville head to Vigor High (Prichard, Ala.), where Coach Kerry Stevenson wanted to show him a player. Tuberville wasn't interested in anyone at Vigor, but a little "P.R. work" never hurt. A coach never knows where the next hot prospect will emerge, so a few hours' detour wouldn't hurt if it kept Tuberville on a high school coach's good side.

When Tuberville arrived, Stevenson brought him to the gym, where the boys' basketball team was practicing. As the men made small talk, the basketball players lined up for a three-man weave drill.

"Coach," Stevenson said. "Let's see if you can pick him out."

Seconds later, Vigor's 260-pound power forward tore down the floor and unleashed a vicious dunk. Tuberville turned to Stevenson. "Who was that?" he asked. "That," Stevenson said, "is Sen'Derrick Marks." Tuberville offered Marks a scholarship on the spot, Stevenson said.

Watching Marks terrorize SEC offenses as a defensive end last year or as a tackle this season, it seems impossible to believe that when Tuberville offered, he joined a group that included only West Virginia, Louisville, Southern Miss and Louisiana-Lafayette. While Marks had played well on the football field as a junior and senior, he hadn't impressed coaches on the camp circuit. Of the BCS-conference schools that recruited him, only Louisville was blown away by his football prowess.

West Virginia offered, Stevenson said, because Mountaineers offensive line coach Rick Trickett -- who has since moved on to Florida State -- went to a local gym for a 3 a.m. workout one Saturday while in town recruiting. While most of the world slept, Trickett saw Marks lifting weights. Impressed, Trickett told Stevenson he'd love to see Marks in Morgantown.

But the recruitment essentially ended when Tuberville saw Marks dunk. The exact details of that dunk vary depending on who tells the story. Stevenson and Tuberville each walked away impressed, but their versions of the tale don't include a measure of how far Marks flew. Marks is happy to fill in that gap.

"When Coach Tub walked in the gym, he was like a celebrity," Marks said. "He was the man. ... For some reason, I was going up dunking the ball. I was coming up from about the free-throw line. I say the three-point line."

OK, he kidded about the three-point line. But the free-throw line? "You don't believe me, do you? I know you don't believe me," Marks said. "I'll go right now -- with boots on."

No matter the exact distance, the dunk wowed Tuberville, who didn't need to see a scrap of football tape before offering a scholarship. "I recruited him for one reason," Tuberville said this week. "He's a great basketball player."

Tuberville then explained his philosophy for recruiting linemen. He prefers raw material over raw bulk. "You have to predict the future, and that's hard to do," he said. "You're taking kids that are 240, 250. You know they're going to have to put on 40 or 50 pounds. How are they going to handle that weight? Are they willing to do it? It all starts with athletic ability. I don't like taking players that have to lose weight when you get them. A lot of the linemen, a lot of people bring them in and they're 6-5, 6-6, 330, 340 pounds and they say, 'We can bring that guy in and make him a better athlete.' We can't do that."

Few other coaches practiced that philosophy in 2004, according to Stevenson. "People," he said, "put a whole lot of stock in size."

Marks, now 296 pounds, has made opposing coaches pay for that mistake. At Florida last season, he blocked a 34-yard field goal attempt. Later, he tossed eventual Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow for a four-yard loss on first-and-goal from the 3-yard line. The Gators eventually settled for a field goal. The two plays probably saved Auburn's 20-17 win. Last week at Mississippi State, Marks significantly helped bail out Auburn's offense in a 3-2 win.

But can he dunk from the free-throw line? As Marks recounted the tale again last month after a practice, Auburn cornerback Jerraud Powers couldn't bear another telling. "You didn't dunk from no free throw line," Powers told his much larger teammate. Besides, Powers had another Marks dunk story.

Story No. 2:

All the principals in this tale agree on some basic facts. As incoming freshmen, several football players and women's basketball players shot around at a court on campus. Marks and Powers were there. So was KeKe Carrier, a 6-7 center from Lake Charles, La. At some point, Marks dunked. Here is where the stories diverge.

"He went and dunked on her," Powers said. "It caught me by surprise. From that day on, I knew Sen'Derrick was an athlete."

Marks backs Powers' version. He said he didn't employ any spin moves or crossover dribbles. "No," Marks said. "I just dunked on her."

Carrier, after exchanging hellos in a telephone interview, answered the Marks question before it was asked. "He claimed that he dunked on me, right? No, he didn't," she said. "I am glad you called. I want to clear this up."

The dunk became legend on campus before Carrier got a chance to tell her side of the story. This, she said, is because it took "about 10 seconds" for Marks to run his mouth. She doesn't dispute the fact that Marks dunked. She does, however, challenge his assertion that he dunked over her. She was well beyond the free-throw line when the ball went through the rim. "He dunked," she said. "But I was about 20 feet away."

Marks doesn't have time this week to dispute Carrier's version. He must prepare for his biggest challenge yet, 6-7, 386-pound LSU guard Herman Johnson. Johnson -- nicknamed "Biggest Baby" because it is believed that, at 15 pounds, 14 ounces, he may have been the heaviest child ever born in the state of Louisiana -- dwarfs Marks. Despite a reach advantage that would make Jim Lampley faint and a 90-pound weight difference, Johnson may have trouble containing Marks.

"I've never seen anything like Sen'Derrick Marks," Auburn offensive line coach Hugh Nall told The Montgomery Advertiser last month. "We'll watch tape and he'll make a great move. Someone will ask what they should do next time. Sometimes, I just have to nod my head. There isn't always a right answer with Sen'Derrick. You can do everything right and he'll still get by you. He's special."

Still, even if Marks dominates Johnson, he shouldn't get too comfortable. Another 6-7 athlete waits on his own campus for the rematch that could produce a third Sen'Derrick Marks basketball court story. This one, Carrier said, Marks won't want repeated. "If we go one-on-one," Carrier said, "I'm going to have to take him out."

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