It was one of the best improvisational moves of the 2010 Pac-10 season: Arizona State was trailing 34--33 near the end of the fourth quarter at USC on Nov. 6, when Sun Devils tailback Cameron Marshall found himself on a collision course with cornerback Torin Harris. Instead of juking the onrushing Trojan, Marshall debuted a move his sister, Dahlys, a sprinter and hurdler at Arizona, had long ago mastered but that he had never even attempted: He leaped over Harris and kept running, gaining 26 yards for a first down.
"That was a moment of pure instinct and athleticism," recalls ASU running backs coach Bryce Erickson, "and it really fired up our offense."
Like so much of the Sun Devils' work last season, Marshall's leap was for naught. At the end of that drive, the Devils missed a 42-yard field goal attempt, and USC held on to win. That was the ASU season writ small: Four of its six losses were by a total of nine points. "For the last few years we've been an 'almost' team," says Marshall, a junior who ran for 787 yards and nine TDs and caught 21 passes for 227 yards and another TD last year. "We almost beat USC; we almost beat Wisconsin; we almost beat Georgia [in 2009]. Always, the game was right there, but we couldn't get over the hump."
There are reasons to believe the Devils will close the deal more often this year. Their last two games of 2010 were big wins, including a 30--29 OT thriller at Arizona. They have 17 starters back, nine on an offense that has had a year of experience running coordinator Noel Mazzone's up-tempo spread, and eight on a defense that allowed the fewest rushing yards in the conference.
Marshall has done his part. A burly back (5'11", 212 pounds) whose nickname is Muscle Milk, Marshall has thrived in Mazzone's screen-heavy scheme. "He has breakout speed [his 40 was once hand-timed at 4.32], great hands, great vision, great ball skills, and he's really worked at improving his pass protection," says Erickson. "He's a very complete back."
Marshall may be polished as a tailback, but as a hurdler he's raw. After examining his leap on video, Dahlys "gave me some pointers on my form," says Marshall. "Apparently I could use some work on my trail leg."