When asked to describe Nico Marley, people who know him seem to almost immediately use the word “undersized” to detail the game of Tulane’s sophomore linebacker.
It’s only natural.
Not often do you see players of Marley’s stature — 5-foot-9, 200 pounds — patrolling the weak side of a defense at linebacker the way he does. He gets it done by using his intelligence and his toughness to make up for any deficiencies caused by his size.
“He’s a very smart guy, so he took on the playbook very easily and learned the defense really well,” Tulane co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Jon Sumrall said. “He was able to come in immediately and contribute by making a bunch of plays because how physical he is and how fast he is, but mostly because of how smart he is.”
Marley started 12 of 13 games last season for the Green Wave as a true freshman and earned Conference USA Co-Freshman of the Year honors after racking up 67 tackles (10 for loss), two sacks and two fumble recoveries.
“Last year, me and (Marley) were really close,” senior safety Sam Scofield said. “He’s really fast and already one of the smartest linebackers on the team. Honestly, he’s like a senior out there.”
Marley tries to not pay too much attention to the accolades he has already amassed in his short time at Tulane and primarily keeps his focus on improving day-to-day.
“I’m just focused on playing my game through our defense and doing whatever the coaches ask of me,” said Marley, the grandson of legendary reggae artist Bob Marley. “I’m not really worried about what people have to say about me, it doesn’t really affect me.”
A big challenge for Marley heading into this season will be coping with the loss of stalwart defensive tackles Julius Warmsley and Chris Davenport. Having those big bodies in the middle last season prevented Marley from having to fend off blockers as much and allowed him to use his speed.
“A linebacker’s best friend is a good defensive line,” Sumrall said. “It protects him and allows him to run free and make plays.”
Marley said Davenport and Warmsley were “great players”, but he also has faith that his current defensive line can protect him so he can continue to make plays the way he did last season.
“We have an array of great defensive lineman coming back this year. I just think they need a chance to show what they can do,” Marley said. “The potential is through the roof with those guys.”
Sumrall said the next step in Marley’s growth is more dependent on what he does off the field rather than on the field.
“Marley is now the most experienced guy in our linebacking group, so he needs to take more of the responsibility of leading guys and helping them along in their development,” he said. “The most important thing is that he affects the guys around him and convinces them to do things the right way.”