Miles Marshall juggled what would have been a simple touchdown catch. No other defender was on the screen during ESPN’s broadcast.
In Indiana football’s game against Wisconsin on Dec. 5, 2020, the Hoosier wide receiver had slipped through the Badger secondary and found himself wide open, awaiting the throw from junior quarterback Jack Tuttle.
He just had to watch the ball fall into his hands and walk into the end zone to give Indiana a 20-6 lead.
Instead, the ball tipped off his hands and out of reach. Marshall dropped to the turf, put his hands on his helmet and stared at the sky in disbelief.
The play didn’t matter. It was the difference between a one-score or two-score victory in the final box score but it didn't make it easier for Marshall. Neither does the fact that the ball may have been a bit underthrown.
“I’ve watched it probably 100 times,” Marshall said. “I’m trying to look to see something I did wrong, but there’s nothing I really did wrong. I followed the ball all the way through, it was just a lack of focus.”
The referees calling Parkview High School games in Lilburn, Georgia, didn’t know how to handle a 6-foot-4, 210-pound wide receiver who was able to block like Marshall could.
Big and strong enough to play tight end, Marshall, a physical receiver, would often be called for a penalty after legally knocking down an opposing player. He’d return to his head coach Eric Godfree in a competitive furor.
“Go back out there,” Godfree said to him. “Do it again.”
Marshall, emotional over the call, listened to his coach. The next play he cleared his defender again.
That physicality coupled with his competitive fire has pushed him to the edge of a breakout season for Indiana.
“I wake up every morning and tell myself I want to be the best receiver on the field,” Marshall said. “It’s no disrespect to Ty (Fryfogle) or anyone else in our group, I just want to be the best receiver on the field. I want to go to the next level.”
While his size and physicality lent itself well to being a tight end in high school, his natural gifts — the ability to run routes and create separation — allowed him to stay in the outside slot.
“We have not thrown speed outs to anybody like we did Miles Marshall,” Godfree said. “He could push off a corner, create a little separation. Ball would be in the air, he gets his head turned around and would naturally grab that ball.”
In addition to his athletic gifts, Godfree said he had a work ethic few other high schoolers possessed. He showed up to workouts in the offseason and always stayed after practices. His drive furthered his chances of playing as a wide receiver at the next level.
“He’s got the immeasurables,” Godfree said. “You put immeasurables with a lot of hard work, and it seems to be a factor for greatness.”
Marshall has made catches much more difficult than the drop against Wisconsin.
Against Michigan on Nov. 7, 2020, he used his length and physicality to jump over his defender and secure the ball despite a holding penalty.
Two weeks later, against Ohio State, he broke away for a 68-yard reception before he was taken down two yards outside the end zone. In the Outback Bowl against Ole Miss on Jan. 2, Marshall snagged a ball between two defenders for a 20-yard gain.
In a highlight video posted on his Twitter Feb. 22, Marshall says, “It’s too easy, man. Just throw it up to me.”
But the Wisconsin drop, where no defender was within 10 yards, stayed with him.
He focused on it to learn from it and get better. It’s a new season with a fresh slate, and Marshall’s competitive instinct has him motivated for his next catch.
“I don’t really think about it much anymore,” Marshall said. “For a couple weeks I did. I just try to make sure I catch everything now.”
Marshall committed to Indiana July 20, 2017.
He had just completed his senior season at Parkview, where he had 73 receptions for 1,118 yards and 15 touchdowns, all single-season school records.
The Hoosiers were coming off a year that saw them reach and lose a second consecutive bowl game for the first time in 25 years.
At the time, Tom Allen had coached one game at Indiana.
Marshall saw his chance to compete at a high level in college within Allen’s vision for Indiana. After visiting Indiana in June 2017, Marshall returned to Parkview and told Godfree Bloomington was the place for him.
Despite the Hoosiers’ struggles at the time, they sold Marshall a vision of what Indiana could achieve when Marshall would be starting in a few years.
No one outside of the Indiana locker room would believe that vision in 2017. Just four years later, Marshall is part of the group that Allen is bringing Indiana to the national stage. For the first time since 1969, the Hoosiers are ranked in the preseason.
“I sat in their home and recruited them, and our coaching staff visited them multiple times and invested in their families and sold the vision of what we believed we could build here,” Allen said. “To see them come here, buy in to that before the turnaround happened, before the breakthrough happened, is really special.”
The Hoosiers are once again coming off consecutive bowl game losses this season, but the difference between 2021 and 2017 is stark.
Allen is a perennial coach of the year candidate. Indiana went 14-7 in 2019 and 2020. Inside the locker room, Indiana has legitimate hope for a Big Ten Championship in Bloomington and Marshall is set to be a mainstay in the Indiana offense.
“I always had in my mind that I can play at an elite level in the Big Ten,” Marshall said. “Last year I just proved that to myself, proved it to everybody else. So yeah, I come in this year with a whole lot of confidence, knowing that I can do it.”