ATHENS – David Marshall was heading to Auburn. He was all but signed, sealed and delivered. A longtime commit to the Tigers, Marshall was expected to sign with them on National Signing Day in February 2016.
He did not.
The 6-foot-3, 274-pound defensive end from Thomaston, Ga., signed instead with Georgia. Kirby Smart, then the Bulldogs’ brand-new coach from Alabama, flipped Marshall, as they call it in recruiting parlance. It was one of several notable flips Smart was able to execute after bolting Tuscaloosa to become Georgia’s coach in December 2015. You may recall another one by the name of Jake Fromm.
“David’s a kid from over in Thomaston, so he’s over close to Auburn,” Smart said after practice Tuesday. “It’s kind of in the middle of the two schools. I have a good relationship with David’s high school coach, Tommy Parks. [Marshall] had come to Alabama’s camp for four years, and I always thought a lot of him as a competitor and a good person. I just thought he was a good player. He decided to come, and I’m glad he did.”
A 4-star prospect according to ESPN, Marshall has lived up to his billing during his short stint in Athens. Now a sophomore, he has participated in all but one game the Bulldogs have played since his arrival. He started four games as a freshman and got his first start this season two weeks ago against Auburn.
Marshall shares time with Jonathan Ledbetter at Georgia’s one defensive end position. He’s fifth among down linemen with 16 tackles and has 2 quarterback pressures and a pass batted down.
At Georgia, Marshall plays for defensive line coach Tray Scott. Marshall started his career playing for Tracy Rocker, an Auburn alum, who was dismissed last year.
At Auburn, Marshall was recruited – hard – by Rodney Garner, who used to coach at Georgia. Derrick Brown, a fellow sophomore from Sugar Hill, Ga., is a starting defensive tackle for the Tigers and remains a friend of Marshall’s. So is Dontavius Russell, a junior from Carrollton, Ga., and the starter at the other tackle. He also tried to sell Marshall on making it an all-Georgia defensive line, along with Martavious “Big Cat” Bryant, who signed with Auburn last year.
Suffice it to say, Marshall has a lot of relationships with players who will be wearing blue jerseys Saturday when Georgia faces off with Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. But Marshall insists that doesn’t give him a soft spot for the Tigers, nor does it necessarily provide any additional incentive.
“Not really,” he said. “It’s just another team we’re playing. Auburn is just another team. It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Georgia needs Marshall to play better against Auburn than he did in this year’s first meeting. And Marshall actually played pretty well. In the Nov. 11 game on The Plains, he had 3 tackles – including 2 solos – which is pretty good playing at a position designed to provide gap control and set the edge rather than getting after the ball.
But overall, the Bulldogs were manhandled up front by the Tigers. Auburn rushed for 237 yards and had 488 total yards in the 40-17 win. While Georgia committed a lot of penalties and had other miscues that contributed to that result, Marshall said he and his mates in the trenches know they have to play better against the Tigers offensive front.
Marshall said there’s a way to do that.
“Last game, we tried to get off our blocks early,” Marshall said. “[Auburn’s Kerryon] Johnson, he’s a patient back, so he could find a hole better. So, we’ve just got to hold our gap longer and play more technique. They’re a running offense. You’ve got to stop them.”
Marshall has seen his reps increase as the season has gone along. Smart said that is because Marshall is getting better, and he expects the improvement to continue.
“He has improved each year,” Smart said. “He played a good bit for us last year, and he’s playing this year. So I’m glad we got him. It’s hard to find big guys that have some athleticism. He’s one of those guys.”
Despite the lopsided outcome against Auburn last time, Marshall said he didn’t catch too much grief from his friends on that side of the rivalry. Likewise, he wasn’t in their face about the Bulldogs’ 13-7 upset last season in Athens.
As crazy as fans get about these rivalries and as bad as the players want to win for them, they’re able to put all that aside after the final horn sounds.
“We still have a good relationship,” Marshall said of all the familiar faces on Auburn’s sideline. “We speak [cordially] after games and then walk away.”
But that doesn’t mean Marshall doesn’t want to win in the worst way Saturday. The winner of the SEC Championship Game is expected to gain a berth in the College Football Playoff.
The stakes are high, but that doesn’t change Georgia’s approach.
“It’s going to be a great experience for both teams,” Marshall said. “It’s going to be a sellout game. It’s going to come down to who plays the best and who has the most discipline. … We’ve just got to focus on this game, not next week, not what bowl we play in, what team we play, anything like that. We have to play harder and disciplined.”