Nov. 25—PULLMAN — In 2015, Armani Marsh and Sam Lockett III held down key roles in Gonzaga Prep's secondary and boosted the Spokane program to a class 4A state championship.
Now, the two Bullpups are representing Eastern Washington once again as starters in Washington State's defensive backfield. And they're eyeing another state title.
"Being Washington kids and being from Spokane, you grew up watching the Apple Cup, you grew up wanting to be on this stage," Marsh said. "It's just a big opportunity, and it means the world."
Marsh is a sixth-year Cougar, a third-year starter at nickel and a second-year team captain. Lockett, one year younger than Marsh, reunited with his hometown friend this offseason, capturing first-team duties for WSU at free safety after a winding journey that took him through the junior-college ranks.
"It's awesome. It's something we dreamed about as kids," Marsh said.
Marsh will play his final collegiate game in Pullman, and Lockett will get his first taste of the Apple Cup rivalry on Saturday when WSU (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) and its staunch defense face 12th-ranked Washington (9-2, 6-2) and its high-powered passing attack at Gesa Field.
"It's surreal," Lockett said. "Who doesn't want to play in the Apple Cup when you're growing up? It's a blessing. I get to play with my brother. And of course, I get to play against my other brother at U-Dub."
Marsh and Lockett will square off against their G-Prep teammate — Devin Culp, a fifth-year Husky and third-year starter at tight end.
The three became fast friends in Spokane, meeting early on through youth basketball tournaments. The three teamed up at G-Prep and helped the Bullpups to their first state championship in 28 years, a 34-16 victory over favored Skyline (Sammamish) in December 2015 at the Tacoma Dome. G-Prep went 14-0 that year.
"That whole season was just memories that will last forever," Marsh said. "Obviously, that team had a lot of dudes (including future All-American Cal linebacker Evan Weaver). It was a family. We were all brothers. Just being able to have a season like that — go undefeated, win the state championship — it's an amazing feeling. There are things I'll never forget for the rest of my life."
Marsh, then a junior cornerback, recorded a touchdown-saving interception in the title tilt. Lockett, a sophomore and G-Prep's other starting CB, played "incredible coverage all game" against Skyline's stacked receiving corps, longtime Bullpups coach Dave McKenna said, noting that Lockett allowed just one completion.
"The best cornerback duo in the state, we believe," Marsh added.
Culp, a sophomore wideout, scored twice on reverse runs.
"They just played lights-out," McKenna said.
A team captain and first-team All-Greater Spokane League pick as a senior, Marsh walked on at WSU in 2017. As seniors, Lockett and Culp led G-Prep to the quarterfinal round of the state playoffs. Culp, a touted recruit, signed on with UW. Lockett earned a walk-on opportunity as a receiver at Utah State.
Over the years, the three maintained regular correspondence. Even this week, despite the bitterness of the rivalry, they had a nice chat and didn't exchange trash talk.
"We've been around each other since we were younger and we keep in touch," Marsh said. "Earlier in the week, Sammy FaceTimed (Culp). We just said what's up, got to talk to each other on the phone. We're always keeping in touch."
They have stayed close to G-Prep's program, too. Bullpup coaches check in weekly. Marsh returned home to watch a game from the sideline this fall. Culp and a few UW teammates hosted a free camp this summer for kids in the area.
"I'm just so proud of them," McKenna said. "Off the field, they're getting together and talking to each other. When they're on the field, they're competing their tails off. ... I just cheer for the kids. I want all three of them to make plays."
Marsh and Lockett will probably match up against Culp on several plays this weekend. The two Cougars DBs cover the middle of the field where Culp is often targeted.
Marsh got the better of his former teammate last season. Early in the fourth quarter, a short pass tipped off Culp's hands. Marsh was there to make his second interception of the game, which he returned for a touchdown that sealed a 40-13 Cougars victory in Seattle. WSU snapped a seven-game Apple Cup drought.
"That's great stuff. They'll be bantering about it down the road," McKenna said. "Friendship goes beyond football. As a coach, it's fun to sit back and watch that competition and knowing, at the end of the day, they're going to take care of each other."
Pullman reunion a 'blessing'
Marsh served as a WSU scout-teamer for his first two years before earning a playing role in 2019. He developed steadily and became a Pac-12 standout last season.
Lockett's path to this stage of his career was a bit less straightforward. He plugged away as a walk-on receiver at Utah State in 2018, then flipped to safety the next season and served on special teams.
"I wasn't getting any playing time, so I decided I'd go juco and bet on myself," he said.
Lockett enrolled at a JC power, City College of San Francisco, and had a breakout season in 2021, registering three interceptions for the Rams, who went 13-0 and claimed the California Community Athletic Association championship.
All along, Marsh and Lockett kept tabs on each other.
"Even when I was at different schools, we always stayed connected," Lockett said. "We've had that brotherly love for years. It'll never change."
Early last season, they had discussed the possibility of reuniting on the Palouse.
"With both of the paths we took, we didn't know it'd end up this way," Marsh said. "Obviously, that was the goal. When he was at juco and I was here, we definitely talked about it, like, 'We gotta get you up here soon.' "
Lockett was searching for a home during the 2021 recruiting cycle. The Cougars were looking for a new safety or two after losing all of their depth at that position to graduation.
"That was a question mark: Who would replace (George Hicks) and (Daniel Isom) and all those guys?" Cougars coach Jake Dickert said.
Marsh pitched Lockett to WSU's coaching staff.
A couple of weeks later, the Cougars still hadn't extended an offer. So, Marsh tried again, going directly to Dickert's office.
"I was like, 'He can play,' " Marsh said. "We just talked and it all happened. ... He really earned his opportunity. All I did was help him connect with the coaches."
Eventually, Dickert was convinced that signing Lockett was "just too much of a home run to pass on," considering his experience, impressive 2021 campaign and connection to WSU's program.
"Getting the opportunity to live out our dreams and play with each other, not only in high school but at the college level," Marsh added, "it was something we talked about, spoke into existence. It's been a big blessing."
When the offer rolled in, Lockett quickly decommitted from San Jose State and jumped at the chance to join his longtime friend in their home region. He expressed gratitude toward Marsh, whom Lockett considers to be "like a big brother."
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere but here," Lockett said, acknowledging that he'll get emotional when the season ends and Marsh departs. "He got me here. He's one of the big reasons I'm here. He just kept my head on straight during this crazy year we've had. He's been a big factor in my success.
"Daily, I'm like, 'This is crazy' when I walk in here. I get to play with my brother. It's like high school again. I get to relive those days with someone I care about."
Spokanites producing for WSU
For the second consecutive season, Marsh has been one of the Cougars' most consistent defenders.
"We both started off as walk-ons in our careers, so seeing where he's come — he's a two-year captain and the piece he is to this program and this team, it's something that has motivated me," Lockett said of Marsh, who collected an all-conference honorable mention nod last year.
Marsh, at 5-foot-10 and 188 pounds, is adept against the run and the pass. He ranks third on the team with 60 tackles and has contributed two sacks. According to Pro Football Focus' performance metrics, Marsh owns the seventh-best grade among all cornerbacks/nickels in the Pac-12.
He logged his first interception of the year last week in the fourth quarter against Arizona quarterback Jayden de Laura, the former Cougar starter who was held in check by his former team.
Marsh is heading into the final stretch of his WSU career, which has spanned 45 games.
"With my time winding down, I'm just reflecting on all my years and being able to play with my brother Sammy," Marsh said. "It's really a big thing for us and the community of Spokane, the younger kids looking up to us. We're cherishing these moments. It's something I know we're extremely grateful for. It's definitely starting to hit me more and more as we're getting closer. I'm extremely thankful for my career here — all the memories I've created and the ones I'm creating this year."
Lockett has quietly improved throughout the season as his confidence grows and he becomes more familiar with this level of competition.
"Sammy is fun, because he's done nothing but get better," Dickert said. "I don't know if I've ever heard Sam say more than a couple of words. He just smiles and works hard. Armani's that way, too. They're very much 'example guys.' ... They really value being here."
The 6-1, 205-pound Lockett is fifth on the team with 46 tackles and leads the Cougars with three interceptions. He was well-positioned last weekend, recording two picks in the third quarter versus a Wildcat team that entered the game seventh nationally in passing production.
"He's not going to be the loudest person in the room, but if you watch him, he's just always taking care of business and doing what he has to do," Marsh said.
"That really inspires me. He's a playmaker. He's got size, but he can run, cover and tackle. He can do it all."
WSU's deep coverage down the middle of the field had an unsteady start to the campaign but has settled in well. The Cougars have held all but two opponents to less than 300 passing yards and limited six teams to less than 220 yards through the air.
Cougars DBs say communication has been the key to their success, and there's no greater connection in the WSU secondary than the one between Spokane natives.
"I think it just helps everybody get more comfortable, just brings a good energy," Marsh said.
WSU's defensive backfield will take on its toughest challenge of the season this weekend against its in-state rivals, who boast the No. 1 passing offense in the country.
"(The Apple Cup) is something we have to go earn," Lockett said. "I'm excited, especially with it being my first one. I've never got to play in an atmosphere like this."