PULLMAN – From local walk-on to power-conference standout – Armani Marsh’s success story is a result of internal motivation.
Now entering the final chapter of his collegiate career, Marsh is an established Pac-12 starter and a captain for Washington State’s secondary at the nickel position.
But he’s just as self-driven as he was five years ago, when the underrecruited Gonzaga Prep grad agreed to join WSU – knowing he’d have to work his way out of scout-team obscurity to receive a scholarship offer and playing time.
“I always say this: He stretches with a more serious purpose than anybody on the team,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said of Marsh after Tuesday’s spring camp practice. “That’s how he works out. That’s how he treats academics. That’s how he attacks every day.”
Through spirited initiative, Marsh has become an ever-reliable piece of the Cougars’ secondary. He’s been “Steady Eddie” throughout spring ball, Dickert said, and has solidified himself as one of WSU’s best all-around players.
“With Armani, you just know exactly what you’re going to get day in and day out,” Dickert added. “There’s a consistency to how he attacks each day with a purpose and an intent.”
The first-year coach figures that stems from Marsh’s past and the persistence it required.
“He got here as a walk-on and I don’t know if anyone really gave him a chance,” said Dickert, who served as Marsh’s defensive coordinator for the past two seasons. “He came in and proved himself with heart and with passion.
“We know what Armani’s going to give us. Point blank. Period. So, sometimes with those guys, you kinda forget about them in the background a little bit. But he’s going to be a major contributor to everything we’re doing.”
Marsh was named a team captain last season and played a key role in the Cougars’ defensive resurgence, breaking out as a dependable and versatile defensive back in his fifth year at WSU and second year as a regular starter.
He finished third on the team with 70 tackles and had a team-best three interceptions, including two in WSU’s long-awaited Apple Cup win in Seattle. Marsh collected a bobbled pass for a pickoff and returned it 28 yards for a score in the fourth quarter to put the game away.
“He’s a technician,” said Dave McKenna, the longtime coach at G-Prep. “Right spot, right time. He just has that knack, that ‘it’ factor. It’s not coincidental. Certain guys have it and he’s one of them. If the opportunity is there, he makes it happen.”
The nickel position – an extra cornerback who lines up near the defensive box – requires players to be physical in the ground game, nimble on passing downs and aware enough to identify formations and tendencies before the snap.
“You gotta make tackles at the line on big, strong running backs,” Marsh said during an interview after the season. “You gotta be able to shed blocks on tight ends and deal with linemen coming at you. As an outside cornerback, you have the sideline to help you. At nickel, (receivers) can go inside or outside. There’s more space to cover.
“I help people line up,” he continued, breaking down his responsibilities. “Just being able to communicate and get everyone on the same page … doing my job consistently, I think that allows (my teammates) to trust me, and knowing where everyone is supposed to be allows me to play faster.”
Marsh, at 5-foot-10 and a sturdy 186 pounds, fit the mold of an ideal nickel last year, performing effectively in each facet. He popped running backs and made a number of acrobatic plays in the secondary. Marsh was named All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
“Armani Marsh wasn’t first- or second-team all-conference, and that’s disappointing to me,” Dickert said in December. “The kid does everything right. He makes plays, he scraps out there. He’s a leader in the locker room and he plays his tail off every Saturday and has results. I’m not always big into individual awards, but (consider) the breadth of what he’s putting out on tape week in and week out. He never misses a snap and now we can’t even take him off the field because of everything he does.”
The Cougars were undoubtedly thrilled when Marsh announced in December that he’d be taking advantage of an extra year of eligibility – provided by the NCAA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic – and returning to WSU for a sixth season.
He’s not ready to turn the page yet. Marsh has individual goals still to meet and added winning a Pac-12 championship is his No. 1 reason for accepting the bonus season, which he called a “blessing in disguise.”
“I fully believe we have the staff and players to do that,” he said. “It was really a no-brainer for me, for my future and what I want to accomplish.”
Marsh wants to earn a All-Pac-12 first-team nod, lead the conference in interceptions and generate NFL interest.
“It’s a great feeling to see the work I’ve put in over the years come to light, but I’m the type of person who thinks I could always play better,” Marsh said. “I’m going to work as hard as I can this off-season to play at a higher level. I’m not comfortable with where I am. I want to do so much more.”
His primary focus this summer – aside from finishing his second degree – will be on fine-tuning his run-game defense.
Marsh made improvements to his tackling abilities last offseason after spending a season and some change getting his feet wet at the nickel position.
He walked on at WSU as an undersized outside cornerback, listed at 5-8 and 160 pounds, and plugged away as a deep-reserve CB in 2018.
“I knew I could play and I never doubted that, but I wasn’t where I needed to be physically,” Marsh said. “That takes time, effort and a lot of work to get exactly where you want to be.”
Marsh impressed at the following fall camp, and his patient determination was rewarded with a scholarship.
He climbed into a starting role at corner for the Cougars’ 2019 season opener – it was his first and only start at CB for WSU – then was moved to nickel midway through the year and started twice at that spot.
He remained the first-stringer there when WSU hired a new staff in early 2020.
Between the Cougars’ four-game, coronavirus-disrupted season and their 2021 season, Marsh put on “15 pounds of lean muscle” and saw his football IQ “skyrocket.” He said much of the credit goes to Mark Banker, who stepped away from coaching in January after two seasons at WSU as a DBs assistant.
“I learned so much about the game of football in such a short amount of time,” Marsh said.
Marsh wasn’t always fully dedicated to the sport. He enjoyed basketball most during his upbringing in Spokane, and he’d even considered giving up football when he was a freshman at G-Prep.
“I was so small (5-5, 120 pounds) and wasn’t starting on the freshman team.” Marsh said.
Marsh decided to stick it out and enjoyed a breakout season as a junior, helping the Bullpups to an unbeaten season and a State 4A title. He recorded an interception in the championship game.
“Armani had something different in him when it came to football, but I’d say it really sparked between his junior and senior year,” McKenna said. “He started to love the game more than the attention you get from the game. That’s what separates the good players from great players. It’s not just about game day.
“He put his mind to it and made it happen. You saw him do it when he was younger and he continues to do it.”
Marsh landed on the All-Greater Spokane League first team and several regional all-star lists after his senior year, but he went almost completely under the radar in recruitment.
“I’m extremely thankful for how everything worked out,” he said. “If I would have gotten scholarship offers from FCS or Big Sky schools, I probably would have taken it. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I like being the underdog. It helps me keep going and wanting more.”
Self-motivated and confident in his Power Five potential, Marsh made an ambitious choice, accepting a test of will when he signed a preferred walk-on deal with WSU.
“I’ve always had it,” he said of his inner drive, “and it definitely got stronger in college. It’s internal motivation. I have big goals, big dreams and I know it’s not just going to happen overnight. I had to put the work in, and I understood that.”
Marsh represents G-Prep
The Spokane native’s gray Cougars helmet features a Bullpups decal on its side. Marsh, whose father also attended G-Prep, talked Thursday about “representing where I come from.”
“It feels amazing, all the support from friends and family and everyone back home,” he said. “Just being able to be this close and play for WSU is a dream come true. I’m very thankful for it.”
Marsh is one of three Cougars from Spokane, along with reserve running back Kannon Katzer (Mt. Spokane) and safety Sam Lockett III (G-Prep). Marsh vouched for Lockett during last recruiting season and Dickert heeded his secondary captain’s advice. Lockett signed with WSU out of the City College of San Francisco and is competing for the Cougs’ starting role at free safety.
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