This time last year, Lawrence Marshall didn’t know whether or not he’d be back for a fifth year.
At that point — a redshirt junior — Marshall had played in 10 career games, with just nine tackles to show for it. Defensive line coach Greg Mattison approached Marshall after last season and expressed a desire to have him return. Still, Marshall was understandably reticent. He could have easily departed as a grad transfer and found a more regular role elsewhere; it would’ve been hard to blame him.
Then Mattison told Marshall a story that helped bring clarity to the situation. Mattison left Michigan for Notre Dame in 1996, a year before the Wolverines won the national title.
“‘Lawrence, you don’t want to feel that way,’ ” Marshall recalls Mattison saying, “ ‘leaving and Michigan winning a national championship and you left at the wrong time.’
“I was like, ‘I don’t want to be that person.’ ”
But the decision wasn’t that simple — Marshall knew there were real reasons to leave. He made a pro/con list that included “not really playing, not really producing as you want to produce.” He knew that was a possibility.
Then, defensive end Chase Winovich decided to return for a fifth year, quarterback Shea Patterson announced he was transferring to Michigan and Marshall’s mind was made up.
“I talked to Chase. I knew (Bryan) Mone was coming back. I talked to Jared (Wangler) a little bit. I talked to Brandon Watson, too. We all just came up with a plan,” Marshall said. “Our plan was to beat Michigan State, beat Ohio State, go to the Big Ten championship, win that, go to the playoffs, go to the national championship, and we have all that at stake right now.
“When you look at the paper you were like, ‘Oh my god, this is a great team.’ ”
Now, with those goals either accomplished or in reach, standing weeks away from glory in his fifth season, Marshall already feels validation. He’s carved out a valuable niche on this team, playing in seven games and filling in as a starter when defensive tackles Aubrey Solomon and Michael Dwumfour went down with injuries.
When he walks out of the tunnel Saturday against Indiana for his final home game, Marshall admits he “might cry.” Standing in Schembechler Hall, senior safety Tyree Kinnel chimes in with a retort: “Of course you’re going to cry.”
And who could blame him?
Marshall and his fellow fifth-year seniors, in particular, have seen plenty in their careers. The group will walk on the field Saturday with a 42-27 record, and with more highs and lows than most programs experience in a decade.
“My journey, it’s been different,” he said. “A lot of ups and downs — with playing time, with the team, not going to a bowl game my freshman year — to now, it’s like a 180.”
Marshall and his recruiting class came in under coach Brady Hoke, in an environment starkly different from the one they leave. Saturday will be reflective for a group that withstood those hardships — and is emerging triumphant through them.
“When we came in, we were 5-7. We’ve gone through kind of a roller coaster, from people telling you you’re the greatest thing and people telling you you’re almost nothing,” Wangler said. “… You definitely know what the bottom feels like, and (now) you’re getting a taste of the top feels like. You really just want to keep that momentum going and do something special with that.”
This isn’t that fairy tale ending yet, of course. That can only come two, three weeks down the line — and then, perhaps, beyond. “The goal wasn’t just to win nine games — that was never the goal,” Marshall said.
But Marshall made a decision last season to stick it out, with the hope of being in the very position he and his teammates currently stand in. Senior Day on Saturday will be a time for him to appreciate that.
He stands back and shares a wide smile.
“Great decision I stayed, right?” he says. “I would’ve missed out on this.”