JACKSONVILLE — If anybody else had won the award, it’d have prompted an investigation or Congressional inquiry. When it came to All-Ohio Valley Conference postseason football awards, there couldn’t have been an easier pick than Marlon Bridges, Jacksonville State’s safety, as Freshman of the Year.
Bridges is the team’s leading tackler and is tied for No. 1 in the nation in the fillings-jarring category of forced fumbles, with five. He’ll play an essential role Saturday as third-ranked JSU (10-1) hosts run-happy Youngstown State (9-3) in the second round of the NCAA FCS playoffs.
Problem is, the native of Lanett doesn’t much like talking about himself.
Good thing others don’t mind talking about him.
“There have been games where he’s been the best player on the field. … He’s an exceptional open-field tackler. He’ll knock the taste out of your mouth.”
— Defensive coordinator David Blackwell
Bridges was dead asleep when Daniel Byrd, a JSU cornerback, woke him up with the news about the OVC awards.
He admitted that “I had this award on the top of my list” as a goal when the season began. It’ll be the first of many. He’s a no-brainer pick as Freshman All-America, and if he continues at this pace will doubtless be FCS All-America in future years.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman. He plays like a fifth-year senior. He’s a great tackler. And he’s got an uncanny nose for the ball.”
— Head coach John Grass
Bridges got more ink as a running back at Lanett High School, where he rushed for 2,310 yards as a junior and was second-team All-State as a running back in his senior year. But he has married his athletic skill with instinct and intelligence to become a sensational free safety.
Through film study, he can “put myself in the right place.” And, he’ll admit, “It kinda comes natural to me.”
That was immediately evident at Jax State. Blackwell said there was a temptation to play him last season, but with a senior-heavy secondary, it was prudent to let Bridges sit out.
“I don’t know if (safeties) coach (Brandon) Hall will remember this, but we had a conversation. He said, ‘What do you think about Marlon?’ I was like, ‘He’s going to be one of the best players to come through here.’ … I still feel the same way.”
— Quarterback Eli Jenkins
As Youngstown State played Samford in the first round of the playoffs last Saturday on ESPN3, several Gamecocks gathered at Reggie Hall’s apartment. That game was relegated to a small set; there’d be enough viewing that one later. The big screen showed Michigan-Ohio State, then Alabama-Auburn.
Among the chatter and yelling, Bridges boldly told his teammates that Auburn wouldn’t even score a touchdown.
Wow. When he’s not keeping others from scoring TDs, he’s accurately predicting who won’t.
“He always had that playmaking ability. I’ve been excited (about the success) more than he was. He’s done heck of a job and he’s still not finished.”
— Cornerback Jaylen Hill
Bridges is “kinda chill” — understatement in that self-description — and was the type of kid who’d play sports from sunrise till sundown.
His dad, Marlon Sr., “showed me the route of what a good man’s supposed to be.”
His mom, Monzena McCullough, is “one of a kind.” She hasn’t missed a game all year and before kickoff, Marlon picks her out in the stands, looks up and waves, then points to the sky “to tell her thank you.”
Former Alabama All-American John Copeland, an eight-year NFL veteran, is Monzena’s uncle. Josh Evans, a 10-year NFL veteran who played at UAB, is Bridges’ cousin. He saw them both during Thanksgiving break.
“They’ve talked to me about what it takes to be where they’ve been,” he said. “They told me congratulations (on the OVC awards) and that I have the ability to do what I want. Just remain humble and stay focused.”
“He’s a great player. He’s grown up, to be just a freshman. The sky is the limit for Marlon. Just put it like that.”
— Defensive end Darius Jackson