Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall promised his teammates months ago that he would lead the Tigers to an SEC championship, and now he’s a win away from also delivering a national championship to Auburn. (Reuters)
AUBURN, Ala. — Before he was named the starter, or even took a practice rep, Nick Marshall was making promises to his teammates.
As soon as the junior college transfer got to the Plains, he gave his word to his roommate Trovon Reed.
“He told me, the first day he got here, he was like ‘I’m going to take ya’ll to the SEC championship,’” Reed said. “I looked at him like ‘we just went 3-9, you’re going to take us?’ I mean words can’t explain the guy.”
Marshall delivered of course, helping lead No. 2 Auburn (12-1) to the biggest turnaround in college football this season, an SEC championship and a spot in the BCS title game. But without the benefit of being on campus during spring practice, where the focus is more on learning coach Gus Malzahn’s offense than revolving around game planning as it is during the season, Marshall had to win the job and then learn on the fly.
Malzahn said Marshall knew just “25 percent” of the offense when the Tigers faced Washington State in the season opener on Aug. 31.
“We knew we were going to have to be patient with him,” Malzahn said. “He really picked up things better than we even thought he could. Mississippi State — after that drive at the end, things started to slow down for him, and he was able to play football.”
Marshall threw nearly as many passes against MSU (34) as he did in the first two games of the season combined (36), with 20 completions. He went 6-for-8 for 66 yards on the game-winning drive which he capped off with an 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds to go.
The first true two-minute drill of the season would foreshadow a season full of dramatic plays for the Tigers.
Marshall would go on to connect with Marcus Davis for a 27-yard pass on third-and-long at Texas A&M, setting up Tre Mason for the game-winning touchdown. Then he’d deliver the Prayer at Jordan-Hare to Ricardo Louis to defeat Georgia and the 39-yard game-tying touchdown pass to Sammie Coates with 32 seconds to go in the Iron Bowl, switching hands as he approached the line of scrimmage in order to make the play.
“It’s really been amazing to watch his progress,” Malzahn said. “When the pressure is the most, he finds a way to get it done. He’s been a lot of fun to coach and a lot of fun to watch.”
Yet for all the big plays, Marshall has made in the air this season, it has been his growth as a runner which made it all possible.
During the first bye week of the season, Malzahn refocused his offense based on what he saw from Marshall and made the zone read more prominent and everything has taken off since. Marshall attempted 103 passes in the first four games and just 109 in his eight games since, while his rushing production skyrocketed from 37 yards per game in the first four games to 109.38 in his last eight games.
“I feel way more comfortable now,” Marshall said. “There were some things that we used to do that I wasn’t comfortable with, but it just took more practice time and more effort at practice, and then I just took my time I had available, not in class or anything, just watching more film and just watching what I mess up on, and just going out in practice and correcting it. I just feel more comfortable with the offense right now.”
Malzahn’s ability to refocus his offense so early in the season in order to better fit Marshall’s skill set was the biggest reason why Auburn has become the top rushing team in the country. But it was not done alone; Malzahn credits offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee with much of Marshall’s development as well.
“From day one whether you’re teaching him something early on, or whether you’re getting onto him and ripping him, or however it is you’re doing it, he responds well all the time, Lashlee said. “Not only does he respond right but then his actions follow. He’s very rarely have you had to tell him something twice. I give him all that credit, from being coachable and then having the will and the desire to try to get better.
“You look at the (Georgia and Alabama) games when we needed him to make throws, he made throws. He made really good throws, very efficient. He knows he’s going to have to keep doing that, but you can tell he’s working on it, and he’s getting a lot better.”
Malzahn places an extremely high value on spring practice, perhaps more than any other coach in the country. Those 15 practices are so important to him because it helps form a framework for the start of the year and can get a new player acclimated into the hurry-up, no-huddle far earlier than Marshall was by coming in during the summer.
“I always say we are a quarterback-oriented offense. If our quarterback plays well, we play well, and if he doesn’t, we don’t,” Malzahn said. “We put a lot of pressure on the guy as far as not just when the ball is snapped, but before the ball is snapped, after the ball is snapped and we rely on him a lot. — It’s really something when you really think about it big picture — it’s really something what he’s done.”