For a few minutes on Monday morning, Keith Marshall was no longer the fastest player at this year’s NFL combine. The former Georgia running back had spent most of the previous 72 hours as the clubhouse leader in the weekend’s glamour event, the 40-yard dash, putting up a 4.31 on the first day of on-field workouts and then holding onto the top spot over the weekend as Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller and others came mere hundredths of a second from passing him. Now, on the last day of the combine, Auburn cornerback Jonathan Jones had posted an unofficial 4.28, putting Marshall’s mark at risk.
With a small slice of history on the line—not to mention the $50,000 pay day from adidas he'd receive for notching the fastest time—Marshall elected not to sweat out the final groups of cornerbacks and safeties as their runs were televised live on NFL Network. Instead, he elected to sweat, going through a workout back in Athens as others informed him of the results, including that Jones’s time had been dialed back to an official 4.33.
“I wasn’t nervous about it,” Marshall says. “Obviously, I wanted to be the fastest player there and everything, but I felt like I went out and I did good and I showed teams what I could do from a 40 standpoint. That was the most important thing, not having the fastest time.”
Still, superlatives can only help during this crucial three-month stretch for Marshall, who spent much of 2015 as the third-string running back on Georgia’s inconsistent offense, finished with just 350 rushing yards and three touchdowns and left a year of eligibility on the table by going pro. His 25 reps in the bench press were also tops among true running backs at the combine, but the 40 was always going to be a message-sending opportunity for a player whose final three college seasons were marred by a slew of injuries.
Marshall arrived on campus in 2012 in the same recruiting class as Todd Gurley, and the duo represented an embarrassment of riches for a Georgia team many expected to contend for a national title. They took turns wrecking opposing defenses as freshmen: Gurley ran for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns, while Marshall turned in 759 yards and eight scores. But Marshall tore his ACL five games into his sophomore year and was shut down three games into the 2014 season after realizing that his knee still “wasn’t ready.” That in part cleared the stage for Gurley’s dominant (though also injury-shortened) close to his college years.
When Marshall returned to playing shape this year, he found two more highly-touted young running backs blocking his way to playing time. Closing in on graduation in December and cognizant of the uphill battle he faced for carries on the 2016 team, he left his final year of college eligibility on the table.
“I knew I was a guy who didn’t play all that much, so with the process, I felt like how I carry myself, I’m very good with football as far as learning the plays and understanding the game of football, and I felt like I would interview well and I knew I would perform well at the combine, pro day and workouts,” Marshall says. “So I felt like I was a guy that could help my draft stock, and I think I’m in the process of doing that.”
Marshall can’t match the resumes of the elite prospects at his position in this year’s class, and he says that his injury history was the primary topic of conversation with the teams who interviewed him in Indianapolis. Plus, it’s no secret a blazing 40 is no guarantee of breakout success—Cardinals receiver J.J. Nelson, who paced last year’s field with a 4.28, finished his rookie season with just 11 catches for 299 yards and two touchdowns.
For now, Marshall has chosen to ward off that uncertainty with a focused approach to his training and a singleminded goal.
“It’s exciting, but it was kind of like a bonus,” Marshall says of the prize from adidas. “The real money is making an NFL team and getting on the roster.”