Being stuck in middle just fine with Marshall

Redskins linebacker ready to handle key spot

Earnhardt visits camp

Pro Football

August 12, 2005|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

ASHBURN, Va. - Lemar Marshall's face isn't plastered on the covers of video games. His No. 98 jersey isn't flying off the racks at a record pace. He's not even the most recognizable face on the Washington Redskins' defense. (That honor would belong to LaVar Arrington.)

But in terms of impact and significance, it could be argued that no player on the defensive side of the ball may be as valuable as Marshall, who will likely succeed former teammate Antonio Pierce as the middle linebacker and mental anchor.

"I don't think of that," Marshall said of the pressure associated with replacing Pierce and his 160 tackles last season. Pierce signed a free-agent deal with the New York Giants during the offseason.

"There was another man who did it. I just want to take the responsibility and go ahead and do what I can do. I know I can get the job done. I know I have the physical abilities. I just have to put myself in the right position and play in the right frame of mind and go out and do it."

Although Warrick Holdman, Clifton Smith and rookie Robert McCune have been cited by Redskins coaches as candidates to play middle linebacker, Marshall, 28, has the inside track on starting there when Washington opens the regular season against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 11.

Marshall - who signed a three-year, $2 million contract to stay with the team - started 14 games at weak-side linebacker in place of Arrington last season, recording 82 tackles and 1 1/2 sacks. Perhaps more importantly, Marshall has the confidence of Gregg Williams, the assistant head coach in charge of defense.

"Lemar has the greatest strengths and learning curve to know how exactly we want things done," Williams said. "Lemar Marshall, from a contact standpoint, was the most physical presence he had ever played in the National Football League last year. If he can play that physical and that strong at [weak-side] linebacker, who's to say that he can't do that at middle?"

Marshall's journey took an unusual path. He played mostly cornerback and safety at Michigan State. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who signed him as an undrafted free agent), the Philadelphia Eagles and the Denver Broncos, he was used as a safety.

When the Redskins signed him as a free agent in December 2001, Marshall made the switch to linebacker, but previous coordinators weren't entirely sold on the move. Before former defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis left the team after the 2002 season to become the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, he had intended to move Marshall back to the secondary.

Listed at 6 feet 2 and 232 pounds, Marshall is one of the lightest linebackers on Washington's roster. But Marshall is also one of the fastest linebackers, and special teams coach Danny Smith has added him to the kick and punt return teams.

But Marshall wants to make his mark at middle linebacker. He saw Pierce fill in for the injured Mike Barrow - who has since been waived - and blossom under Williams' guidance.

Marshall has had to adjust his linebacking responsibilities. As the weak-side linebacker, he focused on the tackle, guard and center positions and occupied any blockers. As the middle linebacker, he has to envision the entire field and avoid contact until he reaches the ball.

But several Redskins have said that the transition from Pierce to Marshall has been seamless.

"Things have been going pretty smoothly with him in the middle," said defensive end Phillip Daniels. "I don't think we're going to lose a beat with Antonio gone. We've got Lemar in there, and he's going to keep things going for us."

With that kind of faith from his teammates and coaches, Marshall said he is ready to seize the opportunity.

"I've been on the other side of the fence, jumping from team to team," he said. "You don't have too many opportunities. So once you get that second or third chance, you've got to take advantage of it, and that's what I'm doing."

NOTE: NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. watched the last day of training camp that was open to the public. Earnhardt, who admitted getting game updates during Sunday races, said he's been a loyal Redskins fan for more than 20 years. "We didn't have [an NFL] team in North Carolina at that time. We do now, and the Panthers are a good team. They're fun to watch, but I've been a Redskins fan ever since, and I can't see how I can't stay one."

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