Randy Trivers doesn’t care what the game is, he’s choosing John Marshall first.
Trivers coached Marshall for four years at Gonzaga College High and learned one defining characteristic of the youngster.
“John is an incredible competitor,” said Trivers, longtime varsity football coach at the private school in D.C.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a board game or cornhole or pickup basketball, I want John on my team because he has such a will to win. He’s just an intense, fierce competitor.”
That base level trait is no doubt the biggest reason Marshall transformed from a prep player who preferred offense to a college player who excels on defense. That desire to compete and determination to succeed have made Marshall a dominant performer at a very demanding position.
Marshall was named first-team All-Metro by The Washington Post as a wide receiver after a fantastic senior season. He was recruited as a wide receiver by a bunch of Football Championship Subdivision schools and came close to committing to Holy Cross.
However, the opportunity to play at the highest level led Marshall to ultimately choose Navy. The only catch was the Midshipmen wanted him to play safety.
“I knew I was coming to Navy to play defense, which was kind of a curveball,” admitted Marshall, who preferred wide receiver.
Marshall amassed 997 receiving yards and scored 12 touchdowns as a senior at Gonzaga. He scored the game-winning touchdown against DeMatha in the Washington Capital Athletic Conference championship game in spectacular fashion. With four seconds left, quarterback Caleb Williams threw up a Hail Mary and Marshall made an acrobatic catch in the end zone for a 53-yard score that gave the Eagles a 46-43 victory.
“That will go down as the most famous play in Gonzaga football history,” Trivers said.
Williams is now the starting quarterback at Southern California, while Marshall is a starting outside linebacker at Navy. Trivers truly believes the latter could have played offense at the FBS level and shined.
“John Marshall may be the best high school wide receiver that I’ve coached,” he said. “I know John has developed into a big-time playmaker as a defensive player for Navy, but trust me when I say that he was a better wide receiver than safety at Gonzaga.”
Trivers was proud when Marshall chose the hard path of attending the Naval Academy and knew it was for the bigger picture beyond football. He knew Marshall would figure things out on the field.
“I had no doubt that John could develop into an outstanding defensive back because he has great instincts, great ball skills, runs real well and plays with physicality,” Trivers said. “Above all else, I knew John would do whatever it took to make it happen.”
Marshall did not see varsity action as a plebe while making the adjustment to playing safety. He was switched to striker as a sophomore after starter Jake Springer and projected backup Chelen Garnes transferred to Mississippi and Wake Forest, respectively.
There was a distinct learning curve at the hybrid outside linebacker position that requires tremendous versatility. Navy needs its strikers to set the edge on run plays and either rush the quarterback or drop into coverage on pass plays.
“I think playing safety helped me a lot as far as being more of a multi-dimensional player,” Marshall said. “Playing striker was a different animal because you’re closer to the line of scrimmage and the physicality is a lot more intense.”
Marshall started the last nine games of the 2020 season that was shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic. He was the team’s third leading tackler with 62 and also recorded his first career interception along with three pass breakups.
As a junior, Marshall was forced to make another adjustment as defensive coordinator Brian Newberry employed a 3-3-5 alignment in several games. Marshall was one of two high safeties in that formation, which was used to defend some of the high-powered passing offenses in the American Athletic Conference.
Marshall was Navy’s second leading tackler (54) last season and made some noise in opposing backfields, recording 3 1/2 tackles for loss and three quarterback hurries.
Newberry challenged Marshall to become more of a dangerous threat coming off the edge as a senior. He intended to use the third-year starter in blitzing situations more often and needed a higher rate of production.
Second-year assistant Joe Coniglio took over as outside linebackers coach and has been instrumental in making Marshall into a disruptive force. Navy’s defensive captain has improved his pass rush moves and learned how to disguise when he’s coming.
“Coach Coniglio has helped me out a lot as far as being able to understand certain run schemes better, where to fit when I blitz, how to use my hands in certain situations and when I don’t need to engage blocks,” Marshall said.
Coniglio says Marshall has developed a better understanding of spacing and leverage, has polished his pass rushing techniques and learned when to take calculated risks. Coniglio said the standout striker has “typically been right” on such decisions over the last five games.
“I’m extremely proud of John and his overall development. I would say his investment in the game has been incredible,” Coniglio said. “Through his overall savviness, attention to detail and understanding of our defensive structure, John has given himself the opportunity to make plays.”
Marshall has been on a remarkable roll during the second half of the season, stacking one big-time performance on top of another. A tremendous stretch culminated against Central Florida, when he totaled 10 tackles and set the single-game school record with four sacks.
Marshall, whose strip-sack led to a fumble recovery that set up the game-winning field goal, was named Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week and earned the same honor from the AAC.
Marshall notched a career-high 15 tackles against Memphis and totaled 11 tackles, five pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and a sack versus Temple. Those five pass breakups tied for the third-highest total among FBS defenders this season.
“I think the production is a byproduct of all the hard work he has put in, both on the practice field and in the meeting room,” Coniglio said. “It has been fun to watch John really flourish in our system. It’s been cool to see his confidence grow and grow. He has developed some swagger, and rightfully so.”
All in all it’s been a monstrous season for Marshall, who leads the Midshipmen in total tackles (88) and ranks fourth nationally in tackles for loss (18 1/2) as well as fifth in sacks (10 1/2). He has already set the Navy single-season record for sacks and needs 1 1/2 tackles for loss to move into second place all-time behind College Football Hall of Famer Chet Moeller (25 in 1977).
Fellow senior outside linebacker Nicholas Straw said Marshall, who also leads the team with seven pass breakups and six quarterback hurries, has set a high standard.
“We see how great John is playing and it motivates the rest of us to raise our game to that level,” Straw said.
Marshall, the only unanimous selection as All-AAC, is far from imposing. The Highland native is listed at 6-foot-2 and 209 pounds, could easily be described as skinny and gets teased by Newberry for having “noodle arms.”
“If you saw John on the street you would not think he’s some crazy baller, but out on the field his play comes alive because he knows the game,” Straw said.
“John is just a football player — smart and savvy with great instincts and an ability to anticipate things,” Newberry said.
Although not an outgoing or boisterous type, Marshall has stood tall as Navy’s defensive captain. Newberry preaches playing with exceptional effort, attitude and toughness — a motto Marshall has manifested.
“John hasn’t committed a single loaf at practice, much less in the game. We talk about elite EAT and he sets the standard,” Coniglio said.
Marshall boasts a 3.4 GPA as a political science major and has received information technology as a service assignment. He will likely serve in cybersecurity and communications.
This is a remarkably small group of Navy football seniors because so many Class of 2023 members left the academy because of the extremely difficult conditions caused by COVID.
“I feel extremely blessed to be able to get through four years here and grind through something that was incredibly hard to stay through,” Marshall said. “I appreciate the resiliency of my classmates who were able to do the same thing. It’s an awesome opportunity to be able to graduate from this institution and having that on my resume is something I will always cherish.”
Army vs. Navy
Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia
Saturday, Dec. 10, 3 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Radio: 1430 AM
Line: Army by 3