Marshall of all trades

One of the major experiments taking place in 49ers training camp is the transformation of Rasheed Marshall. A star quarterback in college last year – the Big East Offensive Player of the Year, in fact – the fleet rookie must leave behind his success at that position and begin anew as a pro. And that's not such an easy thing to do with all the Niners are throwing at him – and expecting of him. "It's just so much," Marshall said Tuesday. "Maybe I was thinking it wasn't going to be as tough."

Marshall knows better now.

The first four days of camp have been an adjustment period and learning experience for San Francisco's fifth-round draft pick as much as any other player on the team.

Then again, Marshall might have more to learn than anybody else on the team. He's being groomed to return kicks. He's being taught to play wide receiver. The tricks of those trades don't come easily to any rookie, particularly one that didn't start playing those spots until college All-Star games in January.

Marshall realizes his learning curve must be more accelerated than that of the dozens of other young players around him. There is no time for slow development with jobs at stake and expectations to meet.

"I don't have a choice," he said. "I've just got to roll with it. Right now, I'm learning a whole lot every day, a taste of something different. I'm just kind of having double duty right now."

But, as the 49ers conducted their first special teams practice of training camp Tuesday afternoon, Marshall's skills and ability to absorb what's being asked of him began to shine through.

When camp began Saturday, Marshall – one of coach Mike Nolan's primary hopefuls to grab hold of kick return duties – was botching most every kick or punt in sight. Three days later, he was reeling them in with regularity, circling underneath the booming punts of Andy Lee and rookie Cole Farden and bringing them into his chest in textbook fashion.

"The hardest thing is just catching a punt out of the air," Marshall said. "I just need to get refreshed on everything and once I get used to doing it, it should come naturally. After that, it's easy. Once I get the ball in my hands, I have the ability to make something happen with it."

That's why the 49ers brought in Marshall, whose athleticism and multi-dimensional ability are attributes the team is eager to develop, nurture and exploit.

"I like a lot of things Rasheed Marshall does," Nolan said. "He's a very explosive player. He's a bright-eyed guy. He's got good character about him. He's doing well, and he'll keep getting better. In time, I think he'll be a special player."

Marshall also has had growing pains at receiver, dropping the occasional pass that should be caught, but the 49ers see potential instead of balls falling to the ground. So does Marshall. Just give him some time, he says.

"A lot of the other guys (at receiver) have been playing the position for a long time and have the ins and outs of playing this position down," Marshall said. "And I'm not just learning the playbook, but also learning how to play the position. But it's coming along."

Marshall has a strong support staff to bring him along. First-year 49ers receivers coach Jerry Sullivan is one of the best in the business. And third-year veteran Arnaz Battle – the team's top punt returner last season and projected starting flanker this year whom Marshall said "has been there a lot for me" – also was a college quarterback who made the transition at the NFL level to the roles Marshall is attempting to master now.

Battle had one big advantage: He made the transition to receiver during his final seasons at Notre Dame before coming to the NFL, and he said that was huge in his pro development.

"It's a tough position, to try to become a receiver overnight," Battle said. "A lot goes into running routes. Every play is full-speed, transitioning out of your cuts and setting defensive backs up, and different ways to maneuver and run different routes is definitely tough. It comes along with time and experience."

Sullivan – who Marshall said is "definitely one of the toughest coaches I've been under" and "he's been climbing on me hard" – doesn't know any other way than to drive his young apprentice hard.

"He's had some moments where I'm sure he wishes he was still a quarterback," Sullivan said. "But for a kid who's making a conversion, you're changing your domain. It's kind of like moving across the country. You're going into an environment where you think you know it, but it's so much different than what you know as a quarterback. He's having his ups and downs, but he's a kid with great character. He's got some good football skills; it's just going to be a process of him learning the skills at his position. It's sort of like when we used to drive stick shifts. When you first got in, you used to think, ‘How can I shift the gears and put the clutch in and let it out?'

"I threw a fit with him this morning and he came right back and responded well and did a couple really good things. He's got great perseverance."

Marshall will need a lot of that the rest of this summer as he evolves as a receiver and kick returner – not to mention remembering what to do when he finds himself in the offensive backfield.

Yes, in addition to the rest of his workload, the 49ers also are asking Marshall to learn and execute a few new wrinkles in their playbook that are being put in specifically to take advantage of the skills that made him a star quarterback.

It's a lot for any player to absorb in his first NFL training camp. But Marshall refuses to accept the notion too much is being thrown at him at once.

"Not at all," he said. "It's tough, but at the same time, if you tell yourself you're going to adjust and step up to the plate for the challenge, then that's what's going to happen, because you're not giving yourself another option but to do that. This is an opportunity that a lot of people don't get. So you just make the most of the opportunities and do what you have to do."

And Marshall, for the time being, has more to do than most.


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