By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic meant Marlon Yarbrough II’s recruiting experience was anything but conventional. His introduction to Steve Garland, the University of Virginia’s head wrestling coach, came on a Zoom call. That’s also how Yarbrough got his first look at UVA.

“I had a meeting with all the coaches,” Yarbrough recalled, “and they showed me videos of Grounds, videos of the different athletic facilities.”

That was enough to sway Yarbrough, who had yet to visit Charlottesville when he committed to the Cavaliers in September 2020, early in his senior year at Copley High School in Ohio. Virginia’s roster that year included another wrestler from Ohio, Victor Marcelli, and “he put a good word in for me to the coaches,” Yarbrough recalled. “They took a look at me and I fell in love with the school, and I’ve been in love with the school since then.”

It didn’t hurt that one of his teammates at Copley, Kyren Butler, was headed to UVA, too. They’d been close friends since elementary school, and Butler committed about a week before Yarbrough. After that happened, Yarbrough said, “I was just like, ‘All right, let’s do it. Let’s finish the journey together.’ ”

Garland said: “It’s always a better thing when a kid is comfortable here and has a relationship heading into the new journey.”

Like Butler, who’s wrestling at 141 pounds this season, Yarbrough competed unattached in 2021-22. Yarbrough finished last season as the Wahoos’ starter at 133 pounds. His final 2022-23 record, 7-10, wasn’t impressive, but in several matches against elite opponents Yarbrough flashed his potential.

“We thought, OK, that’s a really good first step,” Garland said. “His problem last year was consistency, because he’d have a couple great looks like that and then a couple head-scratchers.”

Yarbrough said the strides he made late last season motivated him “to keep pushing and keep achieving the goals that I’ve set for myself.”

Over the past year, he’s focused on “staying on the mat, staying disciplined, just listening to my coaches, making sure I’m just doing everything I need to do to be the best person, the best teammate, the best guy that’s gonna get the job done for my team.”

Garland wasn’t sure what to expect from Yarbrough this year, especially with another gifted 133-pounder, freshman Gable Porter, joining the program.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be an interesting competition,’ ” Garland said. “Well, [Yarbrough] rose to the challenge. He matured.

“The first thing he did was he learned how to cut weight correctly and get his weight under control, because he’s huge for the weight class. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, saying somebody is a huge 133, but he’s big for the weight. We used to be really concerned about whether he was [cutting weight correctly]. I don’t have to worry about that any more. He’s done a great job of always being reliable in that sense now. That makes you feel great as a coach, because you want to see these guys mature on their own without having their hands held, and he’s done that, and we’re really proud of him.”

In 2022-23, Yarbrough said, “I didn’t have a good first half of the season wrestling, just because I didn’t know what I was doing cutting weight. I was still cutting weight like a high schooler. The guys on the team helped me understand that I need to actually lock into my diet, I have to eat certain things that are going to help me, and at the end of the day it’s going to help me compete better.”

Heading into this weekend’s Virginia Duals in Hampton—the Hoos will wrestle Kent State on Friday afternoon and Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon—Yarbrough is 9-5.

“Really, really high upside,” Garland said. “He’s a human highlight reel when you watch him wrestle.”

Yarbrough credits Porter and the Cavaliers’ other 133-pounders for helping him progress.

“It’s a big brotherhood,” Yarbrough said. “Just having Gable on the team has been a blessing, because he’s pushing me every day, same as I’m pushing him. If I see him doing something, I want to do it better. And if he sees me doing something, he’s gonna want to do it better. So it’s always being competitive with each other.”

Marlon Yarbrough

Staying healthy has been perhaps Yarbrough’s biggest challenge this season. Twice recently during matches he’s suffered stingers—nerve injuries that cause temporary numbness or loss of feeling—and lost as a result. Yarbrough said he’s working to improve his technique to avoid such injuries.

Yarbrough, who was born in Missouri, moved with his family to Ohio when he was about 3 years old. Copley is a suburb of Akron, Ohio, in a state that takes wrestling seriously. Yarbrough was about 6 when he started wrestling, “and I just fell in love with it,” he said.

Larry Grimes, who coached Yarbrough in high school, began working with him years earlier, in the Copley Youth Wrestling program. “I started with Marlon when he was in kindergarten,” Grimes said.

Like many young wrestlers, Yarbrough struggled at first to learn the sport, but his growing pains were short-lived. “I’d say about the third grade I noticed there was something special about him,” Grimes said. “His willingness to absorb and learn was a little more than most kids, and that only grew as he got older.”

At Copley High, Yarbrough was a three-time team captain.

“What really stands out is Marlon’s work ethic, No. 1,” Grimes said. “Marlon does whatever you ask him to do. He doesn’t complain. Just a phenomenal kid to work with.”

In Yarbrough’s junior year as Copley, the pandemic shut down high school sports in Ohio a day before the state wrestling tournament was scheduled to begin. There were no such issues in 2021, when Yarbrough capped his high school career by winning the Division II state title at 113 pounds. Butler was crowned at 132 pounds that year, and Copley finished third at the state tournament.

“It meant a lot to me,” Yarbrough said of his state title, “just because it was one of the first big goals that I set for myself at a young age in the sport.”

At 5-foot-10, Yarbrough is tall for a 133-pounder. Virginia recruited him to wrestle at 125 pounds, but he’d outgrown that weight class by the time he arrived on Grounds.

His major at UVA, in the School of Education and Human Development, is youth & social innovation. Yarbrough is not sure what career path he’ll follow after college, but he knows he wants to coach, “just because where I come from, the people that helped me get to the level I’m at today are also coaches.”

His coaches at Virginia also have “helped me develop and understand life more,” Yarbrough said. “And so I just want to help other people and other kids do the same thing.”

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