Having exceeded outside expectations at every stage of his phenomenal career, Tulane linebacker Nico Marley is facing his toughest challenge yet.
While teammate Tanzel Smart will get a chance to improve his mid-round NFL draft projection at Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Alabama, later this month, Marley is working out in Florida after being overlooked by all three college football all-star games. Too small to play linebacker in the NFL, he wants to prove he can make it at strong safety rather than the position in which he excelled the past four years. He earned Conference USA co-freshman of the year recognition in 2013 and first-team All-American Athletic Conference status as a junior and senior.
“I’ve gone my whole career with people not believing in me,” he said. “I didn’t expect them to all of a sudden start believing in me. They said I was just a good high school player. Then it was, oh, he was good in Conference USA. Now it’s just that I’m a good college player.”
Marley is not even on the NFL radar at this point. Listed at 5-foot-8, 200 pounds on Tulane’s website, he made 319 career tackles at inside linebacker, where the average NFL linebacker weighs more than 240 pounds and virtually none are below 230.
Hence, the switch to safety, where he could have benefited from an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Florida, or the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl in Carson, California. Tulane sent Marley’s bio to every all-star game but could not sway one to take him.
“I know those all-star games are based more off of pro potential than college production, but we’d hoped that he’d have a chance to at least show what he can do,” coach Willie Fritz said. “There are so many things with him that you can’t measure. If he gets an opportunity and it doesn’t work out for him, that’s the way of the world, but I just think he deserves an opportunity.”
Marley, whose similarly undersized father, Rohan, played one year in the Canadian Football League after a stellar career at the University of Miami, certainly has not given up. After taking 19 credit hours in the fall to graduate in December, he is entrenched at Bommarito Performance Systems in South Florida, the same place Pittsburgh Steelers star running back Le’Veon Bell (a second-round pick in 2013) used for his draft preparation.
“It’s one of the best pre-draft training places, so I’m confident they’ll get me where I need to be,” Marley said. “I have to do the same thing that everybody has to do. You have to run a good 40 (-yard dash). You have to test well.”
At safety, Marley will have to learn to backpedal, something he never needed to do in college. He also has not proven he can play man coverage.
The odds clearly are stacked against him, but that’s nothing new. Tulane was the only FBS school to offer him a scholarship out of Cypress Bay High in Weston, Florida, and as he loves to point out, only two FCS schools offered him.
He then started every game of his Tulane career with the exception of Senior Day in 2013, when he went in on the second play.
“He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached, and I’ve been coaching for a long time,” said Fritz, who had the same initial doubts as everyone else when he looked at Marley after arriving at Tulane last year. “He’s a playmaker. A lot of guys can see it, but he can see it early and pull the trigger.”
Whether any NFL team will pull the trigger on Marley and invite him to camp remains to be seen, but he plans on putting himself in the best possible position for Tulane’s Pro Day in front of scouts.
“I’m not getting into a combine, so I’m focusing on getting my body right and getting into Pro Day shape,” he said. “I’m just looking for one person to give me a shot.”