BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech defensive end Corey Marshall leaned on one knee and his helmet near midfield Saturday afternoon as his mind drifted toward the sleepless nights and suicide sprints that consumed the past eight months.
Since he abruptly left the program in the middle of the 2013 preseason, Marshall had been fighting to get back in Hokies Coach Frank Beamer’s good graces. But during halftime of Virginia Tech’s annual spring game at Lane stadium, once Beamer surprised Marshall by naming him the defense’s most valuable player this spring, suddenly all those concerns officially became a distant memory.
It seemed fitting on a day in which Virginia Tech mustered just one touchdown — a 27-yard run by tailback Joel Caleb on the first series of the game — and proved once again the defense remains well ahead of its work-in-progress offense heading into the fall.
Marshall is one of several playmakers that emerged for defensive coordinator Bud Foster this spring, along with defensive end Ken Ekanem (Centreville) and linebackers Chase Williams (Loudoun County) and Deon Clarke. The revamped front seven became increasingly effective this spring, in part because “every practice, every scrimmage we have, you see more and more of Corey,” Clarke said.
The 260-pound redshirt junior has the same blend of speed and versatility Virginia Tech’s entire defense will feature this year, with the ability to use his quickness at both defensive tackle and defensive end.
“I don’t know if he’s gotten back in the O-Line’s good graces,” wide receiver Willie Byrn joked. “He’s causing havoc for them.”
But rising back up the depth chart had more to do with getting back on track off the field. In his first interview since returning to the program in January, Marshall declined to discuss what specifically led to him taking a leave of absence on Aug. 19 but noted “it was in house issues, like being punctual.”
He remained in class and worked with Virginia Tech’s scout team while redshirting last fall. But not playing a role on one of the nation’s top defenses a year ago stung, even if he understood “at a certain point, [Beamer] kind of had to do what he had to do.”
“I had a string of bad habits and put Coach Beamer in a tough position,” Marshall said. “We were able to reconcile, he stuck with me and now it’s paying off.”
If only identifying a new starting quarterback was that simple.
Virginia Tech will enter the fall without much clarity under center. Neither redshirt senior Mark Leal nor redshirt sophomore Brenden Motley pulled away from the competition this spring, and Texas Tech transfer Michael Brewer and freshman Chris Durkin will join the fray next month once they arrive on campus.
Motley, who entered Saturday listed atop the depth chart, finished Saturday’s game 6 of 11 for 72 yards and an interception, pacing the white team to a 10-7 victory over the Leal-led maroon team. Leal completed 10 of his 18 passes for 90 yards and one interception. Beamer hopes to narrow the competition to two quarterbacks early in fall training camp.
“We’re going to go through some growing pains probably this year, but I think we’re going to go through growing pains full speed,” he said.
The original plan for Saturday involved allowing Virginia Tech’s defense to tackle Leal and Motley. But Beamer changed course after both “got nicked up” during a recent scrimmage, joking “if I put a gimpy guy back there against some of those Corey Marshalls and Dadi Nicolases, I might have a lawsuit on my hands.”
It served as another reminder of how far this offense still must go and how far Marshall has come, a fact not lost on him when halftime brought more closure.
Beamer “gets a lot of flak for giving guys second chances,” Marshall said. “So what I want to do with this opportunity is be a man and make sure that I make him look good.”