Gabe Marks big reason Air Raid a threat to Pac-12 defenses
So when he got the opportunity to play for Crabtree's former coach Mike Leach at Washington State, he was on board quickly.
''He (Crabtree) was the best college receiver ever,'' Marks said. ''When I heard Mike Leach was coming here and they offered me, I said, `"Yeah, I'll do that.'''
Now Marks is putting up Crabtree-style numbers as the Pac-12's leading receiver and a centerpiece of Leach's Air Raid offense.
Marks has 69 catches through nine games for the surprising Cougars (6-3, 4-2 Pac-12). That's been good for 865 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averages 12.5 yards per catch, and caught a team-record four touchdowns in a win over Arizona.
Leach, who is not prone to superlatives, said it's premature to compare Marks to Crabtree, who won two Biletnikoff awards as the top receiver in college football and now plays for the Oakland Raiders.
''He's still steadily improving as a player,'' Leach said. ''He had a great offseason and he's come out there real hungry to play.''
His value to the team is clear.
The fiery Marks is the go-to receiver when the Cougars need to keep a drive alive. On third or fourth down, Marks is as often as not the guy quarterback Luke Falk is looking for.
''He always wants the ball,'' Falk said. ''He's a gamer ... big plays, big moments.''
Dom Williams, the team's second-leading receiver with 54 catches, said Marks is as competitive in practice as he is in games. Marks wants to catch the most balls every practice.
''He brings a fire,'' Williams said. ''He pushes everybody.''
Marks, a junior who redshirted last season, has 192 career receptions and needs four catches on Saturday against No. 18 UCLA to become Washington State's all-time leading receiver. Michael Bumpus caught 195 passes between 2004 and 2007.
The 6-foot, 190-pound Marks grew up in Venice, California, where he was a star player despite his modest size. He was 9 years old when his father was killed in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles in 2004.
In the LA area, Marks said he encountered numerous opponents with greater athletic ability.
''There was a lot of talent where I grew up, and you had to compete if you wanted to win,'' Marks said. ''I wasn't always on the better end of the athletic side of it. So outcompeting guys is how I even the playing field. It's second-nature now.''
When Leach was hired to rebuild the woeful Washington State program after the 2011 season, one of the first scholarships he offered was to Marks.
Marks played immediately, catching 49 passes for 560 yards as a freshman. He caught 74 passes for 807 yards as a sophomore.
But entering his junior year, he found himself behind Isiah Myers on the depth chart. He was also suffering from health problems, and the decision was made to redshirt last season.
He chafed at times, but the decision was for the best, Marks said.
''It allowed me to grow as a person off the field more than on the field,'' he said.
Marks still found a way to shine, albeit on the scout team. ''He was practice player of the week multiple times last year,'' Falk said.
This year, he has emerged as an emotional and intellectual leader for the Cougars.
When the team lost to then-No. 8 Stanford on a missed 43-yard field goal on the final play of the game, Marks entered the interview room afterward and immediately instructed reporters not to blame the rain and wind that had hampered the offenses all game.
There was no talk of a moral victory.
''No one's praising anyone right now,'' Marks said. ''We should have won.''
Marks said he realized this team was special during offseason workouts. But despite the giddiness of fans that the Cougars have qualified for a bowl game, Marks said there is much to accomplish in the final three games of the regular season.
He remembers the pain of playing on two Washington State teams that finished 3-9.
''It's hard not to stay grounded when you have been to the bottom and now are climbing up,'' he said.