Wake Forest safety Marshall grew up rooting against UNC

CorrespondentSeptember 6, 2012 

Liberty Wake Forest Football

After catching an interception, A.J. Marshall of Wake Forest, center, runs the ball back to score a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Liberty in Winston-Salem Saturday, Sept. 1, 2012. Wake Forest defeated Liberty 20-17. (AP Photo/Winston-Salem Journal, Lauren Carroll)

LAUREN CARROLL — Winston-Salem Journal

— Growing up in Durham, it was almost natural for A.J. Marshall to think of North Carolina in less-than-flattering terms.

“It’s kind of cliche to like a team from Chapel Hill,” Marshall said with a laugh. “It’s something a lot of people do, but I just don’t understand it.”

Marshall wound up playing football at Wake Forest, which hosts the Tar Heels in their Atlantic Coast Conference opener Saturday afternoon.

A position change has rejuvenated the 2010 Southern Durham graduate’s career, with Marshall emerging as one of the Demon Deacons’ early-season defensive stars.

Marshall, a cornerback his first two seasons, was moved to strong safety this year to fill the void left by All-ACC first-teamer Josh Bush, now with the New York Jets.

“I had opportunities at cornerback,” Marshall said. “But guys like KJ (Kevin Johnson) and Bud (Merrill Noel, the ACC’s defensive rookie of the year in 2011) really worked hard and really proved themselves, so they gave me the opportunity to play safety.

“I got really comfortable with the position during the spring. There was more opportunity for me to make plays. I think I really found my niche.”

So far, the change has benefitted Marshall and Wake Forest.

Marshall was named the ACC’s defensive back of the week after returning an interception 39 yards for a touchdown in a 20-17 win over Liberty.

Marshall also had six tackles and broke up two passes, but no play was bigger than his career-first interception, which led to his first touchdown, in the third quarter tying the score at 14 and giving Wake Forest a much-needed momentum boost in its season opener.

“He saved us the other night -- that was a huge play,” Deacons coach Jim Grobe said.

“A.J.’s got the ability. We thought he was a good corner, but we can think he can be a better safety. He can learn to tackle better ... but he’s got the good cover skills that you like out of a safety.”

And Marshall -- seven pounds heavier and stronger than last season -- already has a mentor of sorts: Bush, who also bounced between cornerback and safety with the Deacons.

“He’s like my big brother,” Marshall said. “Josh gave me a lot of input, and he taught me so much. ... (But) he critiqued me the hardest of anyone I know. He was joking with me, but he said I definitely could’ve been better.

“I hit the weight room a lot harder this summer, and I had to focus on backpedaling because I’m working from a different perspective. But it’s been a great adjustment.”

However, Marshall admits he hasn’t settled completely into his new role.

“I’m not content at all,” he said. “There’s a lot of improvement I can make, just by getting in the film room and studying a lot more. I had a few missed tackles and a mental error or two. There’s plenty of room for improvement.”

Now, Marshall and the rest of the Deacons’ secondary face North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner, who threw for 236 yards and three touchdowns in the Tar Heels’ 62-0 romp over Elon last week.

Renner, operating out of a spread offense, hit 14 receivers -- a stat that both complicates Wake Forest’s game planning, and makes Marshall relish Saturday’s game.

“He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC,” Marshall said. “He really throws the ball around. He never has one specific receiver that he’s throwing to, so we have to get out there and play fundamental football.

“(But) I love it, knowing that there is a better chance that they are going to pass the ball. I just love it when the ball is in the air and either you’re going to make the play or you’re not. I get hyped when the ball is in the air.”

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