LOS ANGELES — The 2014 season was the year of the freshman running back.
The Rose Bowl features two of the best rookie backs in Oregon’s Royce Freeman and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, who both emerged during the second half of the season to help their teams to the national semifinal.
The flip side is the upperclassman running backs asked to shelve their egos and do something else so Freeman and Cook can thrive.
Oregon’s Byron Marshall and Florida State’s Karlos Williams entered the season with some fanfare — not as much as their quarterback teammates, but fanfare nonetheless.
On Thursday, they’ll play in the Rose Bowl as not even the most feared running backs on their own teams.
Marshall started 2014 as the only returning 1,000-yard rusher in the Pac-12, but by the end of fall camp, running backs coach Gary Campbell called him into his office to pull him off the running back position.
The season-ending injury to Bralon Addison left Oregon without its top three receivers from a year ago. With incoming freshman Royce Freeman joining the team, Marshall’s carries would be limited.
Oregon needed him to learn the slot receiver position. Starting from square one. And he needed to do it fast.
“I couldn't read the defense for the life of me,” Marshall said.
By the end of September, Marshall learned how to read coverages enough to say he felt like a natural at the position. Now, he calls his position an “athlete,” a position that’s common for recruits who could play a number of spots for a number of teams.
He says it not to be arrogant, but it’s the truth: How many players can say they led a team in rushing one year and in receiving the next?
After rushing for 1,038 yards last season, Marshall caught 61 passes for 814 yards with five touchdowns and still managed to rush for 383 yards and 7.7 yards per carry in 2014.
“I don't have to stare at the defense before the play to know what they are,” Marshall said. “I can give a quick look and say they're in cover one, I should run my route this one, or they're in cover way, I should run my route this way. It just came natural after a couple games.”
At 5-10, 205 pounds, Marshall won’t be a burner at the position. Nor does he need to be. His counterpart at receiver, freshman Devon Allen, is on the Oregon track team and can fill that role. Marshall just needs to be a steady target in the slot and an occassional tailback.
“(Marshall’s) ability as a runner is what makes him so effective as a receiver,” quarterback Marcus Mariota said. “Once he gets the ball in his hands, he's such a dynamic playmaker that he has a chance to score every time he touches it.”
On the Florida State sideline, Williams wasn’t quite so fortunate to have a role waiting for him to fill after Cook started to emerge during the second half of the season.
Williams entered the season as a fringe Heisman contender after rushing for 730 yards and eight yards per carry behind 1,000-yard rusher Devonta Freeman.
The dreams of any awards faded as the season went along. Williams lost out in the numbers game and missed two games due to injury. He’s become something of a short-yardage back to complement Cook’s home run ability. Williams finished the season with 10 touchdowns but only 4.4 yards per carry.
“I always expected to be one of the best in the country,” Williams said. “It's kind of surprising because we didn't really know. Nobody knew what kind of season each one of us was going to have.”
Instead, he and Marshall arrived at the Rose Bowl expected to contribute in their new roles and take a backseat in some ways to younger, more dynamic talent.
And along the way, they had to show they embraced their altered roles, not just on the field, but as mentors and cheerleaders for freshmen.
“It's amazing to be able to watch young guys explode, and I remember when I was a freshman I was a big‑time kick returner,” Williams said. “I (was) able to take control of the game, be able to change the game and make plays. It makes me really, really proud.”