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Tuesday, January 3, 2012
Making it all better

By Dave Hooker
ESPN.com

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Want to know the greatness of a student-athlete? Just ask the coaches that know him.

Take for instance Dabo Swinney, the coach at Clemson. Swinney lost a heartbreaking battle to land five-star tailback Keith Marshall. Swinney and his staff were understandably spurned and disappointed when Marshall committed to Georgia.

They thought they had made up enough ground on the Dawgs to land Marshall when he announced his decision last month.

Keith Marshall
Five-star running back Keith Marshall is well respected for his greatness both on and off the football field.
That didn't happen, but at least Clemson's coaches didn't have to wait to hear the bad news from the media. Marshall called them about an hour before his press conference to let them know, a risky move considering how quickly recruiting news can leak and spread.

One might be surprised to know how Swinney responded.

"I talked to the coaches at Clemson and they just congratulated me the day after I committed," Marshall said. "Coach Swinney said he thinks highly of me and my family. I have a lot of respect for those guys."

There were no hard feelings and no need to try to change Marshall's mind. He doesn't seem like a flip-flopper.

Marshall's high school coach, Clarence Inscore, shares a similar sentiment about Marshall. His message to those assembled for Marshall's press conference was simple: Keith Marshall made Millbrook High School a better institution.

"A lot better," Inscore said after practice for the Under Armour All-America Game on Tuesday. "Just by him being there and the exposure he's given our school and the young kids, I think he's made us better. I think the whole school got better because of having the excitement and the energy that's fed off what he's been able to do and the attention he's gotten."

Being the No. 6 prospect in the nation was just part of the equation. Marshall made Millbrook better by being the complete package. He's mature, trouble free and sports a grade-point average, 4.3, that is incredibly close to his 40 time. Those lofty achievements came from a lot of hard work.

Understandably, he was ready for a break after his announcement.

"I've been kind of chilling," he said. "I've just been focusing on getting ready for college."

The break is almost over.

After Thursday's Under Armour Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., Marshall is heading back home to get his things. Then he'll head to Athens, Ga. He's not even sure if he'll spend another night at home before he heads off to college.

"It's going to be a new experience," Marshall said. "I'm kind of nervous. I've lived with my family my whole life. But it's time to take that step."

Of course, the family is a bit sentimental, but by all indications the Marshalls have their son well prepared.

Marshall will benefit from a spring practice at Georgia. Playing time could be at stake, especially if rising sophomore Isaiah Crowell doesn't shore up some issues that limited his playing time in 2011.

Yet Marshall doesn't just talk about being on the field this spring when asked about the advantages of enrolling in January.

"I think it will help a lot, learn the offense and get to know the players," he said. "I just want to get there and get physically ready and adjust to college life."

Speed is the foundation of Marshall's talent. Now it's time to build on that.

"I definitely need to get bigger so I can run inside more," he said.

Size will matter, but don't paint Marshall as a tailback who doesn't want to run inside.

He does.

He asked for more inside running plays in a goal-line drill on Sunday and seems comfortable attacking the line.

"At my high school, we didn't run any outside plays," he said.

He'll run both inside and outside at Georgia, where he's tried to recruit other top prospects to join him.

Four-star defensive end Channing Ward of Aberdeen, Miss., has been a top target this week.

It seems like a long shot since Ward is mostly considering LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State, but Marshall is trying.

Todd Gurley knows the feeling.

The four-star athlete from Tarboro, N.C., has been on Marshall's radar for months, even before Marshall committed. Now that all the information has been passed along, Marshall is letting Gurley think it over. The two talk often and are good friends.

"He has to do what's best for him," Marshall said. "I'm not putting any pressure on him. I wish the best for him whatever his decision."

Marshall made a decision to be loyal and stay at Millbrook years ago. He could have gone to any private school he chose, but as his coach will tell you, Marshall was destined to make his high school better.

"Keith did a lot for us," Inscore said, "and showed guys how to do things the right way."

Dave Hooker covers Southeast and Atlantic Coast recruiting. He has covered recruiting and college football for more than a decade. Email him at davehookerespn@gmail.com.