With NFL aspirations, college football journeyman Ian Marshall finds perfect fit at Northern State
May 2—ABERDEEN, S.D. — In 2023, Ian Marshall might be the quintessential college football transfer story.
Five colleges at four different levels of football. And that fifth stop fit the Missouri native perfectly at Northern State University.
Facing one final year with the Wolves, Marshall is hoping that story can take him to the NFL one day.
Marshall, who debuted for the Northern State football team in 2022 and posted an All-America caliber season, remains firmly under the radar for most college football fans in the region after a 6-5 season for the Wolves.
Marshall, a 6-foot-1, 270-pound graduate student from Springfield, Missouri, led the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference in tackles for loss (24.5) and sacks (14) during an 11-game season in 2022. Both of those figures ranked third-most in Division II, earning him the conference's defensive player of the year award and a second-team Associated Press All-American nod.
He plays defensive tackle, a position that doesn't generally generate 14-sack seasons or games with four sacks, like Marshall had in 2022. Usually those numbers are posted by pass-rush specialist defensive ends.
"You watch the top guys, double-digit sacks, that's hard, given that you have the double- and triple-teams sometimes. I have a little gratitude for being able to do that," Marshall said, with his coaches adding that he faced double teams about 80% of the time last season.
"I feel like I'm a phenomenal pass rusher and I can stop the run and the pass. I'm trying to play on the other side of the ball," Marshall added.
The bravado about his skill is apparent
in Marshall's Twitter handle
: "DRPASSRUSH." More plainly, Dr. Pass Rush.
"My talent that's a given. My mindset, my leadership and what I want to do inside the program, that's my focus," he said. "I want to lift the guys around me. ... We have a lot of talent that doesn't see it yet in them and I want to help bring it out of them."
Northern State head coach Mike Schmidt said Marshall's season was the best in Wolves football history and another year like that would likely make him the school's greatest player ever, even in just two seasons.
"As soon as he stepped on campus and he did his workouts, we knew he was going to be the best defensive player in the league," Schmidt said. "He proved us all right. ... And I hope he wants to be the best player to ever play here. He came in and hit the ground running to get on that track to do that. We're excited about what might be ahead for him."
The college football story for Marshall, who turns 24 this month, started at Missouri Southern, a Division II school in Joplin, Missouri, where he was at for a semester. Marshall then transferred to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, a junior college in Miami, Oklahoma, for two seasons. The next stop was supposed to be at FCS-level Abilene Christian in Texas in 2020, but Marshall's father got sick with cancer, so he transferred closer to home and walked on at the Big 12's Oklahoma State, where the Cowboys were 20-5 over two seasons but Marshall played in only one game. After a lack of playing time, Marshall transferred again and looked for a spot to play, landing at Northern for the 2022 season.
"I had never been to South Dakota. ... Never planned to be here. I knew the talent I had and I wasn't getting the opportunity I wanted," Marshall said. "So I went and made the opportunity happen."
How he got there was a quintessential recruiting story in this digital age. Wolves coaches scoured the NCAA's transfer portal, which provides a name but not much else for information. On Twitter, Marshall had his highlight film posted and his direct messages were open, which was where NSU coaches connected with him.
Even with that being the case, Schmidt told his coaching staff they should be pursuing some other players because they didn't think a player of Marshall's caliber would be coming to NSU.
"Everything jumps out at you when you watch him," Schmidt said. "His get-off the ball, how explosive he is, the way he sheds blocks. I didn't think we could get him to be totally honest with you."
He said he's driven not only by personal goals but helping Northern reach new heights this season, which starts Aug. 31 at Bemidji State, with the home opener Sept. 9 against Minnesota Duluth in Aberdeen.
There are high goals for this new season for Marshall, and Schmidt said he has no doubt that Marshall can play professionally after college.
Marshall knows what he needs to work on, getting stronger and quicker and wanting to play more "bully ball" on the defensive line and show he can be a run-stopper and a dominant pass rusher. Being an All-American and NSIC defender of the year is the standard for 2023, but now Marshall wants to shoot for the Gene Upshaw Award (which goes to Division II's top senior lineman on either side of the ball) or receive consideration for the Division II-version of the Heisman, the Harlon Hill Award.
"I really need to have another great season. If I go out and I do what I did this year and some more, the opportunities will be there for me and they'll fall into place," he said.
After a strong 2022 season, Marshall probably had the opportunity to move on and play Division I football again and go to school No. 6. This time, Marshall stayed put, calling Aberdeen home at this point. He doesn't regret having such an adventurous path in college football, and all of the various stops make him appreciate the success he's having now.
"It would be ideal to spend all four or five years at the same school. But going through the process and seeing all of the different levels of football, it's opened my eyes," Marshall said. "... I've had the most success in my entire football career here. At this point, what's the reason to leave? If you're good enough, they'll find you."