Redskins will get a look at young running backs in preseason opener

ATLANTA — Keith Marshall powered through the line and headed for the open field ahead, where he came across Redskins cornerback Quinton Dunbar and ran through him like a Mack truck through a tollbooth gate.

The rookie running back wasn’t stopping for anybody. An angry Dunbar made sure to wrap up Marshall a few plays later during a practice last week and tossed him to the grass in anger. Marshall simply took the abuse, dusted himself off and walked away.

No hard feelings. But Marshall has a roster to make. And after a relatively disappointing college career at Georgia, the 5-foot-11, 222-pounder has a chance to make a name for himself after slipping to the seventh round in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Incredible depth at running back and a torn ACL in his right knee during his sophomore year ruined Marshall’s career at Georgia, where he had 759 rushing yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman. Now, in the NFL, he has a fresh start.

He isn’t the only one. The Redskins chose not to sign a veteran running back in the offseason. Matt Jones is the clear starter as a second-year pro. Chris Thompson had a breakout year as a third-down back in 2015. Behind them? Questions.

Marshall might never reach the promise he showed as the North Carolina Player Of The Year in high school and as a freshman at Georgia, where he teamed with Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley, a future top 10 pick in the draft.

Mack Brown was another SEC product who had limited production in college. Again, one of the nation’s top prospects in high school, Brown had his best season at Florida as a redshirt junior with 543 rushing yards and four touchdowns. But higher-profile players limited him, too.

Brown wasn’t drafted in 2015 – though he did sign with the Redskins just before training camp and eventually landed on the practice squad in October. Neither Robert Kelley (Tulane) nor Kelsey Young (Boise State) were drafted before signing with Washington in May.

All have shown flashes during OTAs, minicamp and early in training camp. But evaluating any running back outside of game conditions is fraught with peril. That’s what makes the pre-season opener against Atlanta so crucial. If no one looks good the team could always decide to bring in someone else. This is their shot.

“We’re going to see that on game day,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said. “Some guys I’ve seen in shorts, running backs like, ‘Holy cow, this guy can’t be tackled,’ and then he gets into a game and he gets tackled and runs backwards the wrong way.”

Expect Marshall to get the bulk of the carries among the four inexperienced backs. But the others will have their opportunities, too. Marshall began camp with a hamstring injury and Kelley was banged up early, too, with a hamstring injury of his own. Both have recovered. Thursday night is their time to shine.

“I really am excited to watch these guys run,” Gruden said. “Robert Kelley has been very impressive. Mack Brown’s been hitting some holes extremely well. I’ve seen Chris [Thompson], and Matt [Jones] is exploding through there. So we have some interesting guys to choose from. It will be fun to watch.”

Follow Redskins reporter Brian McNally on Twitter.

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