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Keith Marshall stays focused

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Watching Keith Marshall run, it's hard for his father, Warren, not to see a bit of himself in the five-star running back.

Warren was a star running back at James Madison who is still the all-time collegiate rusher in the state of Virginia with more than 4,000 yards. He was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1987 and knows a little something about running backs.

"I see a lot of similarities, little jump cuts that I did," the elder Marshall said of his son. "Being a dad, I think he's better than I was at that age."

Warren wasn't a highly touted prospect when he signed with James Madison. He wasn't even the featured player at his high school. He was more H-back than tailback.

Keith, however, is everyone's all-american. He's No. 6 in the ESPNU 150 and the No. 2 running back in the country. He's one of just nine five-star prospects in this year's class and will play in the Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 5. From there, it will be off to college.

Which school is still up for debate.

Marshall has two official visits left this month -- Clemson and South Carolina -- and he is also considering Georgia, Florida and Notre Dame. He has targeted the first week in December to go public with his decision, possibly on Dec. 4.

Even though Warren wasn't a blue-chip prospect like his son, he has been a five-star mentor, helping Keith evaluate the countless schools that have come calling. Football and academics have been inspected with a fine-toothed comb.

"I think it helps," Keith said of his father's influence. "He can give me advice about everything, what I should look for, the things that are important as we look at each school."

The Marshall family should have known this was coming. They got their first hint more than a decade ago.

Big beginnings

Denice Marshall couldn't help it. She was just too excited.

So off she went, camcorder in hand, running down the sideline, following Keith as he sprinted toward the end zone, taking his first strides toward stardom. It didn't occur to Denice that she had left her two younger children behind in much the same way Keith left defenders in his wake.

Keith was just 7, but he was already good enough to run for a touchdown the first time he was handed the ball, ultimately scoring three times in his first Pop Warner game.

Flash forward to this season. Denice still watches her son run for touchdowns. He's rushed for 1,780 yards and 25 touchdowns despite some nagging tendinitis in his knees that hampered him in the first month of the season.

All the while, she can't help but notice the similarities between Keith and Warren both on and off the field. Denice said both share the same temperament. They are quiet and have a calm demeanor, even if Warren is a bit more talkative now than he was at Keith's age.

"It's great to watch. They're a lot alike in many ways," she said.

Keith, who has a 4.3 GPA at Raleigh (N.C.) Millbrook, has been hesitant to name any list of leaders among the schools recruiting him. Just because he didn't say it publicly didn't mean he wasn't taking mental notes.

"I didn't think it was necessary," he said. "You don't want to turn anybody off so I just kept it to myself."

Marshall isn't offering any hints, but many think Georgia is the team to beat. Marshall grew up rooting for the Bulldogs, and his only reservation about the school has been coach Mark Richt's shaky job status, which suddenly seems much more stable after a win against Florida last week and six straight wins following an 0-2 start.

"I want to make sure he'll be solid at Georgia before I make a decision," Marshall said.

Admittedly, Marshall has a longer, closer relationship with Georgia's coaches than any others.

"They were the second school to offer me in my sophomore year, so I've been talking to them probably every other week since then," he said.

Yet other schools have made a push, namely the Florida Gators.

"I like Florida," Marshall said. "They're struggling right now, but it's a new system. Everybody knew they were going to rebuild this year. I like the coaching staff. I like coach (Charlie) Weis. I like the way he sets up the offense."

Notre Dame is the one program outside of the South that made his final cut, and it was more than just a nod to academics.

"All the schools we are looking at are solid academically," Marshall said. "That's why I wanted to go up there and check (Notre Dame) out. It's a great football program and has great academics."

Clemson was once one of Marshall's favorite schools, but it fell by the wayside for months when it had to replace running back coach Andre Powell, who accepted a position at Maryland.

Now Marshall is trying to get acquainted with Clemson running backs coach Tony Elliott before it's too late for the Tigers. A person with knowledge of Marshall's recruitment said Clemson's chances to land Marshall are long, but with an official visit scheduled for Nov. 11, the Tigers are at least in the running.

South Carolina has the advantage of a strong bond between Marshall and running backs coach Jay Graham, who was a star tailback for Tennessee in the 1990s.

"I just really like Coach Graham," Marshall said. "We like the program."

Relationships are always key in recruiting, but it's not just relationships with coaches that could affect Marshall's decision.

Friends from all over the country

Marshall's official visit to Notre Dame was supposed to be all about, well, Notre Dame. It didn't exactly end up that way.

Marshall was joined on the trip by offensive lineman John Theus from Jacksonville (Fla.) Bolles. Theus committed to Georgia in July, but like Marshall, he had concerns about Richt's job security so he wanted a backup plan in case things blew up in Athens. Notre Dame made sense.

Yet as the two spent time together in South Bend, the conversation often ended up back in the South.

"We talked about a lot," Marshall said. "He was telling me about Georgia and why he committed to Georgia."

Theus is just part of the influence. Just north is Ronald Darby from Oxon Hill (Md.) Potomac. The four-star athlete and Marshall have become good friends thanks to some common track meets. The two could become teammates at Notre Dame, which Darby committed to in September.

"He jokes about it, but he says I should make the best decision for me," Marshall said. "That's the same thing I told him."

Marshall said he hasn't had fellow prospects pressure him too much.

"They joke around because they want you on the team, but you've got to do what's best for yourself," he said. "You can't really worry about that."

Yet there's one prospect that truly has Marshall's ear and vice versa: four-star athlete Todd Gurley from Tarboro (N.C.) High School.

"We're real close," Marshall said. "We've been getting real close lately because we're going through the same things. We view things the same way. None of my close friends around here are going through recruiting, so they can't relate with that stuff. I talk to him about it. We're pretty tight. I talk to him pretty much every day."

Speculation has swirled around the two attending the same school, possibly Georgia.

When asked of the chances that the two might select the same college, Marshall just smiled and said, "I think it could happen."

Admittedly, Gurley didn't see himself playing alongside Marshall earlier in the recruiting process. They were looking at a different set of schools, and there was the competitive streak they both share. Upon further inspection, that eventually subsided.

"Whatever school I commit to, they're going to sign two running backs anyway, so why not go with a guy that I know, that I talk to everyday?" Gurley said. "I'm going to have to share carries with somebody; why not my friend?"

Gurley has seen Marshall's highlights and even went to one of his games earlier this season when Tarboro had a bye.

"He's a great running back," Gurley said. "He's fast, can run inside or outside."

When asked to compare his and Marshall's running style, Gurley hesitated. Eventually, he admitted that Marshall is a bit faster, which was proven during a track meet this summer when Marshall outpaced Gurley and Darby. Gurley, however, is bigger and probably a bit more physical.

The differences could eventually make the two quite a college combo. For now, they're just trying to navigate through their recruitment and all of its bizarre experiences.

Fan is short for fanatic

Marshall will autograph anything he's asked to -- in person. Receiving mail at his home is a bit different. It's hard for Marshall not to wonder how total strangers know where he lives.

"I don't know how they get my address in the first place," he said.

Some of the letters want autographs. Some want to persuade him to pick a particular school. Marshall said the fan following can be a little weird.

"Especially when it's grown people," he said.

The weirdness isn't limited to fans. Some sketchy members of the media have opened Marshall's eyes as well.

"I went somewhere and I saw a whole interview about me, and I didn't interview with anybody," he said.

Soon, Marshall won't be one of the top prospects in the nation and won't necessarily be the one everyone wants to interview. Instead, he'll be just another freshman on the roster. He's looking forward to it and plans to enroll early.

"I think it will help a lot so I can go in and work out and get my body right and get ready," he said. "Also academically, it will help me out so I can get a head start and get acclimated to it."

Marshall is a back who relies as much on speed as anything else, but painting him as a scat-back would be a mistake. He's 5-foot-11 and just under 190 pounds, yet many, including his father, believe he could easily get up to 210 to 215 pounds. Warren Marshall should know. He grew three inches in college.

Warren has done his best to mold his son, telling him not to run laterally and get upfield at all costs. The lessons have had an effect. Now, it's time to watch him grow even more at the next level.

"I think getting under a good coaching staff, which with the coaches he's considering he'll get, I think we're going to be pleasantly pleased with his upside when he gets some college level coaching," Warren said.

As far as his dedication, Keith Marshall seems plenty focused on football. He'd like to run track in college, but isn't married to being a two-sport star. He understands that football is his calling despite the fact that he's an accomplished sprinter.

If Marshall is to be a standout college athlete, like his father, it will come on the football field. Fortunately, he has an advantage over his old man.

"I'm faster than he was," Keith said with a grin.

He'd better be. He'll need every bit of that speed to top 4,000 yards.

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.