RICHMOND – Watching Redskins practice the last few days, and the sight of a white 39 jersey emerging from a crowd to show blazing speed became routine. That player, rookie running back Keith Marshall, seems to be figuring out Jay Gruden's offense just in time for the first preseason game Thursday night in Atlanta.
While Marshall seemed a bit overwhelmed with calls and protections early in training camp, his recent play shows a rookie picking things up at a fast pace. On two plays Tuesday, Marshall made decisive cuts on runs, reversing course to the weak side of the line after the defense overcommited to the strong side. With a strong plant foot, the change of direction had both power and burst, and Marshall could show his elite speed getting to the open field.
"Keith's playing at a high level right now," Redskins starting running back Matt Jones said. "Rough first few days of camp but it's all coming together now."
Jones will enter the season as the 'Skins featured runner, and Chris Thompson is locked in as the third-down back. Both Jones and Thompson, Florida and Florida State products respectively, should get plenty of chances to make plays, but so should the backup. In 2015, Jones, getting a workload somewhere between a timeshare and the backup to Alfred Morris, ran the ball nearly 150 times.
While many folks around the NFL still expect the Redskins to bring a veteran RB in to play behind Jones, Washington GM Scot McCloughan did not rule the possibility out but added that he really liked the players the Skins brought into camp. McCloughan drafted Marshall this year, and the 5-foot-11, 220 lbs. rookie has good size and great speed for an NFL runner. He will get his chances.
"He looks great," Jones said.
Thursday night in Atlanta, a state and stadium he knows well, Marshall will get the chance to carry the ball plenty of times and show the coaches what he can do in live action. Asked if he was ready to carry the load, Marshall smiled and said "absolutely."
"That will be cool, first game back where I have a lot of friends and family," the rookie said.
No story about Marshall is complete without making mention of his injury history. He lost the bulk of his college career to knee injuries, and even missed time in Redskins rookie camp this summer with a hamstring issue. On the other hand, no story about Marshall is complete without mentioning he was rated as one of the top high school football players in the country before committing to Georgia, and when healthy, produced very strong numbers.
Marshall has no preconception that the backup RB role is his, which is the right attitude for a late-round rookie.
"I don't know anything about all that. Coach hasn't really told us anything," Marshall said about his place on the depth chart. "I just come out here and do what they tell me to do."
Gruden might not need to declare Marshall the backup if he's able to produce against the Falcons the way he has in practice of late. There will also be plenty of competition for that spot, and Marshall knows it. Players like Robert Kelley, Mack Brown and Kelsey Young will continue to fight for more reps.
But watching practice, it's become clear that Marshall could emerge with the No. 2 spot. The veteran of the running back group with just three years experience, Thompson smartly would not say that Marshall has solidified himself in the backup role, but Thompson did notice how well the rookie had looked recently.
"You see what he can do out there," Thompson said, and that said enough.