- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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EUGENE, Ore. -- When running back Byron Marshall signed to play football at Oregon two years ago, he knew he'd have to compete in a crowded backfield.
Kenjon Barner was Oregon's bona fide star in the backfield last season, and speedy sophomore De'Anthony Thomas was one of the country's most explosive players. Barner ran for 1,767 yards with 21 touchdowns in 2012, while Thomas ran for 701 yards with 11 scores.
Marshall, from Valley Christian High School in San Jose, Calif., had a solid freshman season, running 87 times for 447 yards with four touchdowns. When Barner departed after the 2012 season, Marshall was still supposed to take a back seat to Thomas this season.
But after Thomas sprained his ankle against California on Sept. 28, Marshall emerged as No. 3 Oregon's top running threat. Going into Thursday night's game at No. 5 Stanford, Marshall has gained more than 100 rushing yards in each of the past five games. Thomas started against then-No. 12 UCLA on Oct. 26, but reinjured his ankle in the second quarter. Marshall ran for 133 yards with three touchdowns in Oregon's 42-14 victory.
"I knew there would be competition coming in, especially with how many great backs that have come out of here year after year after year," Marshall said. "I never want to shy away from competition. I wouldn't go to a school just because I have a guaranteed spot if I can go to a better school and fight for a job. At a top-five program, there's always going to be competition for a position. You always have to be ready to play."
Competition has been nothing new for Marshall, who competed in nearly everything at home. His older sister, Dahlys, was a sprinter and hurdler at the University of Arizona, and his older brother, Cameron, was a tailback at Arizona State, running for 2,700 yards with 38 touchdowns in four seasons from 2009-12.
"My daughter was the oldest so she started it," said Greg Marshall, their father. "She destroyed the boys in everything, including football. She let them know it and rubbed their faces in it. One of their biggest badges of honor was when they could finally beat their sister."
Greg Marshall, who ran track and played basketball at the U.S. Air Force Academy from 1980 to 1984, is a former assistant strength and conditioning coach for the San Francisco 49ers and strength coach at Santa Clara. He now operates his own strength and performance training company in San Jose. His wife, Tammie, played basketball and track and field at Cal State-Hayward (now Cal State-East Bay).
"In our household, the kids competed in everything -- from who could eat dinner the fastest to who could get to the table the quickest," Greg said. "My kids are close so the competition was always good-natured."
I've been saying this since fall camp, that he had one of the best fall camps on our whole team. When you put in the work, good things happen.
”-- Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost
Byron started running track when he was 6. By the time Byron reached the eighth grade, he was a six-time defending national champion in the long jump and was the fastest sophomore in California in the 100 meters (10.61 seconds). Greg hoped both of his sons would choose to run track or play basketball.
"We were pretty disappointed in this whole football thing, to be honest," Greg said. "I thought I was going to have the next Magic Johnson."
But it didn't take Greg long to realize he had another great running back in the family. Valley Christian High School prohibits freshmen from playing on the varsity teams, but the school had to make an exception for Byron. He scored a touchdown each of the first five times he touched the ball in his first freshman team game.
Greg was standing on the sideline watching the action with Mike Machado, Valley Christian High's varsity coach.
"I can't do this," Machado told him. "I've got to bring him up. This is a waste of time all the way around."
Bryon started as a defensive back on the varsity team as a freshman, while his brother Cameron and another senior played running back. He ran for 1,035 yards with 17 touchdowns as a sophomore and 1,360 yards with 20 touchdowns as a junior. Marshall finished with 914 yards with nine touchdowns during an injury-plagued senior season.
"Byron doesn't like to lose," Greg said. "It's just the way he is, and he literally hates to lose. He'll do everything he can to make sure he's prepared. He works extremely hard because he doesn't want lack of preparation to be the reason for lack of performance."
Marshall, 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds, certainly prepared during the offseason. He was expected to be Thomas' backup, but would have to hold off freshman Thomas Tyner, who was Oregon's Class 6A state offensive player of the year after running for 3,415 yards as a senior at Aloha High School.
Marshall wasn't intimidated by his more heralded teammates.
"I've been saying this since fall camp, that he had one of the best fall camps on our whole team," offensive coordinator Scott Frost said. "When you put in the work, good things happen."
Marshall ran for 124 yards with one touchdown in the Ducks' 66-3 rout of FCS foe Nicholls State in their opener, but then had back-to-back mediocre performances in blowouts of Virginia and Tennessee. But when Thomas went down against California, Marshall exploded for 130 yards with two touchdowns in Oregon's 55-16 victory. He hasn't slowed down yet, running for 100 yards in each of the past four games, including a career-high 192 yards with three touchdowns in a 62-38 win over Washington State on Oct. 19.
Marshall leads the Ducks with 879 rushing yards with 12 touchdowns and is No. 14 nationally with 109.9 yards per game.
"I was just given the opportunity, I guess," Marshall said. "D'Anthony and Tyner both had big backgrounds coming out of high school. They were being recruited on a national scale, which gave them a lot of publicity. I came from a smaller school. I've been given an opportunity to show what I can do. I knew I had it in me the whole time."
So did his father. On Thursday night, Marshall's parents and several friends will be at Stanford Stadium, watching him play about 20 minutes from his boyhood home. The Cardinal upset the then-No. 1 Ducks 17-14 in overtime last season, ending Oregon's hopes of playing for a BCS national championship. Stanford has won 11 of its last 12 games against ranked opponents at home.
"From the time he could walk, he was around sports," Greg said. "We always wanted to make sure our kids found fun in sports. Obviously, the Stanford game has a lot riding on it. But Byron is going to look at it totally different. He's going to look at it as a chance to compete against a team that's just as good."
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