The first time Tulane safety Darion Monroe saw diminutive linebacker Nico Marley, he could not believe his eyes or his ears.
Marley was on a recruiting visit, but the idea of him playing his stated position at Tulane — or anywhere else — appeared absurd.
“I thought he was a (defensive back) or a running back,” Monroe recalled. “When he said he was a linebacker, I was like, ‘You’re a linebacker? You’re 5-6. What are you doing?’ ”
It didn’t take Monroe long to figure out the answer. When Marley left, Monroe watched his highlight tape and realized he was short in stature but long on everything else related to football.
“He’s like a missile,” Monroe said. “When he sees the ball, he’s full speed at it. He tackles everything. If the lineman is in the way, he tackles him, too.”
Tulane’s opponents are learning the same thing. Marley, the grandson of legendary reggae singer Bob Marley, already is making sweet music on the field just as his father, Rohan, did at Miami 20 years ago.
Rohan Marley was an undersized (5-foot-8, 200 pounds) standout linebacker from 1992-94, leading the Hurricanes with 95 tackles in 1993 despite being surrounded by players like NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Google him, and YouTube videos still pop up featuring Marley’s relentless pursuit and reckless hitting.
Nico Marley is even smaller. Though not 5-6 as Monroe playfully suggested, he is listed generously at 5-8 and 180 pounds — but he insists he’s 5-7½. That’s teeny tiny by FBS linebacker standards.
Regardless, he came up huge in Tulane’s preseason camp, becoming the only true freshman to crack the first team on offense or defense in coach Curtis Johnson’s second year. Through three games as the starting weakside linebacker, he is second to safety Sam Scofield with 19 tackles and has been a big-time playmaker.
He returned an interception 30 yards to set up a touchdown and recovered a fumble against South Alabama. He made eight tackles in Tulane’s 24-15 win at Louisiana Tech and almost had another interception, reading a screen perfectly and getting both hands on the ball with open ground in front of him before an offensive lineman knocked it from his grasp.
“I know I should have scored,” he said. “I had it. I had it.”
Marley has surprised everyone but himself.
“I just play as hard as I can,” he said. “I don’t really think about a lot of that. I let the chips fall where they may. I do not let anything bother me.”
That’s typical of Marley. He doesn’t say much, but his performance speaks volumes.
“His learning curve has been tremendous,” Johnson said. “He’s good on every situation. He’s in on every personnel group right now. He is a pleasant, pleasant surprise.”
Still, Marley is less of a surprise to Tulane’s coaches than anyone else. Despite helping Class 6A Weston (Fla.) Cypress Bay High win two district titles and earning first-team all-state recognition as a senior, he received almost no offers from BCS programs, including his coveted Miami, because of his size.
Tulane beat out Duquesne for his services. That’s right, Duquesne.
“We overlooked his height because of his motor and his playmaking ability,” linebackers coach Barry Lamb said. “He was blocking kicks and he was making plays all over the field, and we felt as though we needed that kind of energy on our team. We made a big push to get him, and we’re happy we did. He is who we thought he was.”
Marley is much more than just an energy guy who runs all over the field. There is method to his madness. Otherwise, he could not be productive at this level.
Size matters, but he has found ways to compensate, starting with his effort in the weight room. He can bench-press 350 pounds. His upper body is stout, prompting Monroe to say he has a linebacker top and a defensive back bottom.
“I like to have every advantage,” Marley said. “I watch as much film as I can and learn what the defenses do as well as they know what they do. When I see it on the field, I’ve seen it in practice and seen it on film, so I know it’s happening already.”
Intelligence is another asset. Marley says he graduated from Cypress Bay with a solid 3.3 GPA and can translate that brightness to the field.
Monroe, a primo recruit in 2012, marvels at Marley’s quick mind. Monroe started every game as a true freshman, leading Tulane with 96 tackles, but he admits he was nowhere near as advanced mentally at the start of his career.
“Nico is like a junior already,” he said. “He knows the whole defense at linebacker. He sets the fronts. He even looks back to me and tells me what we need to check to. He’s just like his father — real cool in how he plays.”
“He’s a little firecracker,” senior defensive tackle Julius Warmsley said. “His energy is ridiculous, and we’re lucky to have him on our team. He’s a great role model for our other freshmen because he’s able to weed out all the B.S. He doesn’t care. He just gets the job done.”
If that attitude rubs off on Marley’s teammates, all the better. As Tulane struggled to a 2-10 record in the coaching staff’s first season, Lamb noticed a lack of fire and attitude.
The Wave already has matched that win total in three games, and Marley’s presence should keep anyone from getting complacent.
The prospect almost no one foresaw as a college linebacker has become a model for the Tulane way. He is always on time, always shows up for class and exhibits none of the entitlement expected of a guy with his heritage.
“That’s the kind of player we want to represent us,” Lamb said. “We can win with a lot of Nicos on the field.”
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