CHARLOTTE -- The Carolina Panthers were always counting on getting big special teams plays out of Richard Marshall's spot.
They just didn't know Marshall would be the one making them, or that he'd be as much of a defensive player as he's turned into to boot.
Marshall's been one of the happiest coincidences in franchise history, since they grabbed him in the second round (58th overall) in the 2006 draft. They had their hearts set on Miami cornerback Devin Hester that year, but their hopes to add the electrifying returner were dashed by Chicago one pick before them.
So they "settled" for Marshall, and he's done little to disappoint since arriving. He had the lone highlight of the evening for the Panthers in Thursday's 24-13 loss at Philadelphia, a 78-yard interception return off a fake field goal attempt by the Eagles.
"Richard played very well last year for us," coach John Fox said Saturday. "He's an integral part of our defense, he's made some big plays for us last year and made a big play for us Thursday night. It happened to be on special teams, but he's been a real good special teams player for us, too.
"He's a real valuable part of our defense, and we've come to expect him to play like that."
That play showed the progress Marshall has made on both sides, as he recognized the fake quickly, then used his instincts and physical gifts to pluck the ball out of the air and race for the score.
Marshall said the Panthers were playing for the field goal block, and knew something was up as soon as the Eagles' end didn't block down on him. Thinking it was a run, he came flat across the back of the line, and was a bit startled when Eagles punter Sav Rocca tossed one softly in the direction of tight end Brent Celek.
"When I saw him about to flip it, I was thinking 'Is he really going to throw it?'" Marshall said. "Once he threw it I just went and got it and set up the blocks. ... Watching film, every time we're in field goal/field goal block, the end man on the line always blocks down on me, never lets me go free. So once he let me come free, it kind of put up a flag like something's not right.
"Then I saw the man coming toward me, and they never have a man coming toward me, and they never do that on a field goal. But I didn't know he was going to pitch it, I thought it was going to be a run fake. So I was actually going down the line to make a tackle, but when he pitched the ball I just had to go get it."
Going and getting it has never been a problem.
Even in limited time, Marshall's tied for the team lead in interceptions each of the last two years, snagging three each in 2006 and 2007. He's started 13 games, filling in for injured starters Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble, showing glimpses that he could one day be trusted with such a role. But Marshall also knows there's work he needs to do before he can play at that level consistently.
He admitted he sometimes struggles with recognizing what the offense is trying to do against him, and that he still needs time to refine his technique. Being bounced between playing outside in nickel situations early on and then on the inside receivers was also a complication, but Marshall said he's better able to find himself now.
"I feel more comfortable in the defense, feel like I know a little more," he said. "I'm still learning, but I feel like I know more than I did. My rookie season, I was confused about playing nickel and corner and playing both. Now I'm more comfortable in it. (Secondary) coach (Tim) Lewis has taught me a lot about playing the nickel position, so I feel a lot more comfortable than I did in the past.
"I feel like sometimes my eyes get bad, I get caught looking in the backfield too long. I just have to get my eyes better and watch my technique, sometimes my technique is a little sloppier than I wanted and coach Lewis wanted. Sometimes your technique gets away from you when you're trying to play hard and play fast and jump on routes. Sometimes you've got to let the routes come to you and the plays come to you, and not try to make the play."
Lewis said earlier in camp he's been pleased with what he's seen from Marshall, saying he's "blessed" to have a talented third to put on the field along with established starters Lucas and Gamble.
"He's a very good player," Lewis said of Marshall. "When I look at kids and grade them, it's change of direction ability, top-end speed, coverage, tackling, willingness, ball skills, jumping ability, all those things that cornerbacks need.
"He would rank right up there with anyone else."
So far, that's not been enough to crack the starting lineup. In the meantime, he's become perhaps the Panthers' top special teamer, leading them with 17 tackles last year and adding 14 his rookie season, when he was asked to return kicks as well.
Marshall's always been a bit sensitive when asked about starting jobs, not wanting to upset the order of things here. That's why he shrugged when asked about his recent opportunities, invoking the name of fellow backup Ricardo Colclough though he's clearly the next guy in line.
"Me and Ricardo are getting a better opportunity to show what we can do if those guys do get hurt in the regular season," Marshall said. "Showing we can come in and play and not miss a beat out there on the corner."