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August 24, 2013

Auburn football: With ‘the past’ behind him, Nick Marshall looks to turn around Tigers’ fortunes

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Nick Marshall’s feats with his feet are well-documented.

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. All Auburn's starting quarterback cares about is this season and getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. Marshall’s sole focus is getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Sure, many quarterbacks can extend plays and make something out of nothing thanks to fancy footwork. But few have shown the ability to excel at Marshall’s level. Take a look at the 1,095 yards he ran for last year in junior college. Also take note of the 19 touchdowns he accounted for on the ground, the second-most of any player in the National Junior College Athletic Association in 2012.

Or one could just check out his 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash.

Elusive as he may be, there are two storylines Auburn’s new signal-caller won’t be able to outrun this fall.

The first is the way his career at Georgia ended.

The other narrative, which will have far longer shelf life, is tracking his trajectory against the backdrop of a pair of SEC quarterbacks blessed with similar skill sets.

Richt: ‘I hope Nick has success’

Even though he was a record-setting quarterback at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Ga., that meant nothing to the Bulldogs, already set at the position with Aaron Murray. A member of Georgia’s heralded “Dream Team” class in 2011, Marshall shifted to cornerback upon arrival, playing in 13 games that fall. His tenure with the Bulldogs came to an unceremonious end, being dismissed along with fellow cornerback Chris Sanders and wide receiver Sanford Seay for a violation of team rules in February 2012. The three were reportedly involved in stealing money from a teammate’s dorm room.

No charges were ever filed in the case, however.

Following the dismissal, Marshall hit the reset button. He enrolled at Garden City Community College in Kansas and returned to quarterback. After one stellar season at the junior college level — along with his aforementioned rushing totals, he also threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns — he became part of the Tigers’ 2013 recruiting haul in February. Now, he’s entering the season as Auburn’s starter after coming out on top of the team’s four-man quarterback battle during fall camp.

He’ll make his debut Saturday in Auburn’s season opener, taking on Washington State in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Marshall hasn’t — or won’t — allow himself to reflect on his journey to this point, especially when the topic of the Bulldogs is broached.

“I don’t too much worry about that,” he said. “I’m an Auburn player now, so that’s in the past. I’m just going to move forward.”

Georgia never looked back, either. The Bulldogs have won back-to-back SEC Eastern Division titles, and are favored to make it three straight this season. His team’s lofty goals didn’t prevent Georgia head coach Mark Richt from being happy for Marshall when he heard Auburn’s quarterback search had come to a close.

“I like Nick,” he said. “I hope Nick has success other than our game.”

If he was still with the Bulldogs, Richt believes they would have already taken advantage of Marshall’s talents, building specific packages for him to shine offensively.

“We were thinking that we would somewhere along the line in his career,” he said, “but we never got to it.”

Marshall joined LSU’s Zach Mettenberger in a strange club: Both former Georgia players begin this fall as the starting quarterback at another SEC school. It’s a startling statistic; given other teams’ success with his former players, Richt was asked whether he would consider adding any ex-SEC castoffs in the future.

Depending on the circumstances involved, he wouldn’t rule it out.

“You just have to know all the facts and decide if this person would be in the best interest of Georgia and (if) the person, whatever they did, learned from it,” he said. “It would be a possibility.”

Marshall deflects comparisons with other QBs

The script nearly writes itself.

A highly-touted recruit runs into off-the-field trouble at an SEC school, transfers to a junior college — lighting up the circuit along the way — and then finds redemption as Auburn’s starting quarterback.

Obviously, this arc describes Marshall’s path to Auburn. It also is strikingly similar to Cam Newton, almost to the letter.

Like Marshall, Newton is a native of the Peach State. Regarded as one of the top players in the Class of 2007 out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, Newton ended up committing to Florida. Things never got off the ground for him in Gainesville, Fla., though. He spent two seasons with the Gators, departing in 2008 after being suspended by then-head coach Urban Meyer. The suspension stemmed from an arrest, as Newton was accused of stealing another student’s laptop. The charges were eventually dropped after he completed a pretrial diversion program for first-time offenders. Newton pushed on and finished out the fall semester of 2008 before leaving Florida in what he said was a search for more playing time.

And he found exactly what he was looking for at Blinn College in Texas.

Newton led the Buccaneers to a national championship in 2009 and pledged to Auburn soon after. In another piece of symmetry with Marshall, Newton came out on top of his own four-way quarterback competition at Auburn in the spring of 2010.

Everyone knows how Newton’s story goes from there.

In one of the most remarkable seasons in recent memory, Newton took the college football world by storm. With uncanny athleticism for a player his size and a knack for rising to the occasion when he was needed most, Newton led the Tigers to a 14-0 record and their first national title since 1957. His gaudy individual numbers — 2,854 passing yards and 30 touchdowns and another 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground — also landed Newton the Heisman.

Not surprisingly, when his name was mentioned during Marshall’s first meeting with reporters, Auburn’s newest quarterback immediately shut down anyone seeking to draw parallels.

“I really can’t compare myself to him,” Marshall said. “I’ll just be myself.”

What sets the two apart is sheer size. Newton has four inches (6-foot-5 to 6-foot-1) and 35 pounds (245 to 210) on Marshall. That’s why Matt Miller, Marshall’s offensive coordinator at Garden City, invoked the name of another winner of the bronze trophy whose stature is more reminiscent of his former protege: Johnny Manziel.

Once more, Marshall rejected any notion of being compared to another player.

“Again, I don’t worry about what everybody else does,” he said. “I just worry about me and worry about my team.”

While he wouldn’t acknowledge coming in with a chip on his shoulder, Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn picked up on it the moment he began recruiting Marshall.

“He definitely had something to prove,” Malzahn said. “He’s had that attitude since he’s been here. He’s really studied hard. He’s worked hard. He’s been in that playbook. He’s showed (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee that it’s very important to him. He showed his teammates, too. And that’s the most important thing. He’s got a lot of respect from his teammates, and they’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

Yes, he knows he won over the Tigers with his play on the field. But Marshall said that wouldn’t have come without watching extra hours of film by himself.

Everyone around the program knows the expectations already being placed upon Marshall are sky-high. That’s why the Tigers are going to give him every opportunity to succeed this fall.

“We’ve got a good line, we’ve got some good backs, we’ve got some wideouts that are going to have to step up and make plays for him, and that’s the key,” Lashlee said. “Don’t feel like you have to do too much. Play within the system, and over time the system will grow as you feel better with it.”

In Lashlee’s estimation, the most memorable play Marshall has made thus far is an example of the patience he hopes to see from the quarterback once the regular season begins. In one of the Tigers’ scrimmages during camp, the offense faced a third-and-14. Lining up in a four-wide receiver set, Marshall’s protection broke down. Instead of tucking the ball and running at the first sign of distress, however, Marshall stood tall and dumped it off to his safety valve on the play, Corey Grant. The running back took care of the rest, picking up 16 yards to keep the drive alive.

Lashlee, a former quarterback, couldn’t have been more pleased if he had run the play himself.

“We convert a third-and-14 just because he does his job and doesn’t try to do more than he has to do,” he said. “And to me, that showed great maturity and that, ‘Hey, he’s buying in. He’s trying to play within the system and do what we asked him to do.’”

That doesn’t mean Marshall will always decide to stay in the pocket. Far from it. He just knows his limitations.

Playing one year in the SEC — even if it was on defense — taught him to pick his spots.

“In this league, you can’t take too many hits at quarterback,” Marshall said. “I’ll use it to my advantage to get out of bounds or just get down.”

Undoubtedly, the questions about his one-year stay at Georgia and Newton will surface in myriad forms for the duration of the season. Whether Marshall will ever respond at length is up to him. People shouldn’t hold their breath on either count.

All Marshall cares to talk about is getting Auburn back on the right track.

“I know the team is behind me and I’m behind them 100 percent,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and win games.”

July 25, 2013

SEC Preseason Rankings: Day 5

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextraSEC_new_logo

It’s Day 5 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which will end Saturday as the two teams at the top of the league entering the fall are unveiled. Until then, we’ll count down the teams, two at a time, from worst to first. The format will involve a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.

With eight teams down, there are six to go. How will the rankings shake out from here?

Let’s continue answering that question now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …

6. FLORIDA

Is Will Muschamp done talking yet? He is? OK. We’re good then. All jokes aside, Muschamp delivered arguably the longest opening statement from a coach in SEC Media Days history, clocking in at just over 2,400 words. In it, he went over every change to his coaching staff and every single position on the Gators’ depth chart both offensively and defensively. I’m not making this up.

To save a lot of time, know this: Florida has to replace four defensive playmakers (safety Matt Elam, defensive lineman Sharrif Floyd and linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins) and find someone to match the production of departed running back Mike Gillislee, who ran for nearly half (1,152) of the Gators’ yards on the ground last season (2,445). Oh, and Florida has to discover some semblance of a passing game, after it ranked 114th in the country (and last in the SEC) in 2012 with a miniscule average of 146.31 yards per contest.

The Gators ability to find those answers (or not) will decide whether 2013 is more like Muschamp’s debut season (7-6) in 2011 or last year (11-2).Florida_Gators_logo

  • Best-case scenario: The Gators find a way to win in spite of their pop-gun offense for the second consecutive season. Florida opens the season with four straight victories, beating rivals Miami and Tennessee along the way. LSU hands Florida its first loss of the year in Tiger Stadium in Week 5, but the Gators brush it off to beat Missouri on the road the following week. For the third frustrating year in a row, though, Georgia knocks off Florida in Jacksonville, Fla. Motivated not to lose another game for the rest of the year, the Gators go out and do just that, beating Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia Southern and Florida State to close out the regular season. In a three-way tiebreaker with the Bulldogs and Gamecocks for the SEC East title, it’s the Gators who head to Atlanta to square off against Texas A&M. Just like last season, Florida has an answer for Johnny Manziel, as the Gators drop the undefeated Aggies 27-14 en route to their first SEC title since 2008. In the Sugar Bowl, Florida redeems itself for a pitiful showing against Louisville a year ago. In New Orleans, the Gators gum up the Clemson Tigers’ potent offense, slowing down quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins in a 20-14 victory. Riding high, the Gators sign a top-five recruiting class for 2014, arming themselves for their first national title run under Muschamp the following fall. Gators’ faithful enjoy watching former coach Urban Meyer, now at Ohio State, get torched by Stanford in the Rose Bowl 48-20. Florida fans get further enjoyment from laughing at their two arch-rivals, as Georgia is waxed in the Outback Bowl (losing to Wisconsin) and Florida State falls on its face in the Chick-fil-A Bowl (losing to Ole Miss).
  • Worst-case scenario: Florida’s lack of offensive punch finally catches up to it this fall. The Gators escape in the opener against the Toledo Rockets, a tougher-than-their-name-suggests foe from the MAC. Things don’t work out nearly as well in ensuing weeks, as Florida falls to in-state rival Miami and serve as the first signature win of Butch Jones’ tenure at Tennessee in Game 3. The Gators get their record back over .500 (3-2) following victories over Kentucky and Arkansas, but spend the last seven games of the regular season alternating losses (LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida State) and wins (Missouri, Vanderbilt and Georgia Southern). A 6-6 record earns a bowl berth, but the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La., is far from Florida’s idea of a “dream destination” for the postseason. And the Gators’ play bears that out, as they lose to the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and their triple-option offense 41-10. People start to question whether Muschamp’s physical, grinding style is fit for a Florida program that was built on the foundation of high-flying offensive attacks. It doesn’t help matters that Meyer makes it to the national title game in his second season at Ohio State, either. The Gators’ sign an underwhelming recruiting class for 2014. And Florida fans have to live through an offseason of taunts from its two most hated rivals in Georgia (which won the national title for the first time since 1980) and Florida State (which won the Orange Bowl for the second straight year).

5. LSU

Les Miles was his typical self at SEC Media Days — funny, random, passionate and serious all rolled into one.

The LSU coach went on another spiel about the scheduling inequities that exist in the SEC, as this season will mark the seventh time since 2000 the Tigers play Georgia and Florida in the same season, two teams which combined to go 14-2 in conference play last season. (Miles, of course, could only shake his head when talk turned to Alabama, which gets to play Kentucky and Tennessee, the two teams that finished at the bottom of the SEC East last year after going a combined 1-15 in the SEC.)

Though the Tigers lose a boatload of talent to the NFL every year, the number of defections after last season was unusually high even for them. The defense had seven starters jump to the pros, as well as a few backups who were key contributors. LSU does bring back four starters in linebackers Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones and a pair of players in the secondary in cornerback Jalen Mills and Craig Loston. But the Tigers have to replace the entire front four, including the fantastic defensive end duo of Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery along with tackles Bennie Logan and Josh Downs.

If quarterback Zach Mettenberger and LSU’s stable of running backs don’t help prop up a young defense, 2013 could mark the first time in Miles’ nine seasons in Baton Rouge the “Bayou Bengals” don’t win at least eight games.LSU-Logo

  • Best-case scenario: LSU shows that once again, no amount of talent lost can slow its program down, as it tosses aside what was thought to be a game TCU squad in the season opener in Dallas, winning 38-17. The Tigers follow it up with three more easy victories, rolling over Alabama-Birmingham, Kent State and Auburn, all within the confines of Tiger Stadium. But LSU suffers its first — and what turns out to be, only — setback of 2013, falling to Georgia on the road in a classic affair. The lead changes hands six times, and on three occasions in the final period alone. But Todd Gurley, the Bulldogs sensational sophomore running back, comes up with the play of the game, breaking multiple tackles on his way to the end zone from 32 yards out with less than two minutes to go, helping Georgia hold on for a 34-28 victory. LSU, learning from the mistakes it made in that loss, goes undefeated for the rest of the season, beating Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M along the way. In the SEC Championship Game, LSU stymies South Carolina 30-14 to clinch a spot in the national title game. Ironically, the Tigers face off against the Ohio State Buckeyes, the same team they beat when they last won the national title in 2007. Though this Ohio State team is better than the 2007 edition, it means little, as the Tigers win 28-17, picking up their fourth national title — their second under Miles — and extending the SEC’s stranglehold on the crystal football to eight years and counting. In a stroke of luck, LSU doesn’t lose a single underclassman who has the chance to go pro, as all elect to stay for the chance to win the first back-to-back national championships in school history. And of course, the momentum from the national title carries over into National Signing Day, as the Tigers sign the country’s top-rated class. Meanwhile, “Public Enemy No. 1″ in Louisiana, Alabama coach Nick Saban, is unable to get his team to play to the level of its predecessors. The Crimson Tide finish 9-4 after losing to Michigan in the Capital One Bowl.
  • Worst-case scenario: The Tigers’ defense is ill-prepared for a tough opener, as they lose to the Horned Frogs in Cowboys Stadium 34-24. LSU pulls it back together for the next three games, though it has a hard time slipping past Auburn in its SEC opener in Week 4. The “other Tigers” push the Bayou Bengals until the fourth quarter, when Mettenberger hooks up with Odell Beckham on a 56-yard touchdown pass to seal the game and the 28-20 victory. The Tigers then fall to 1-1 in conference play as Georgia and Aaron Murray throw all over Sanford Stadium in a 42-17 thrashing. LSU gets back to its winning ways one week later as it beats Mississippi State on the road, but at 4-2, the Tigers reach the peak of their winning percentage for the season. They lose consecutive games to Florida and Ole Miss, then get back over .500 after sweeping away Furman. The Tigers lose two in a row once more as Alabama and Texas A&M beat them in back-to-back weeks. LSU recovers to capture “The Golden Boot” against Arkansas for the third straight time, but a 6-6 showing in the regular season is far from what the Tigers or their fans expect. LSU is going to the postseason, as it heads to the Advocare V100 Bowl, also known as the “Independence Bowl.” And, of course, it’s in Shreveport. A lethargic LSU goes through the motions and loses 24-10 to a Wake Forest squad just happy to be there. The offseason doesn’t treat the Tigers any better, as their top two receivers in Beckham and Jarvis Landry, as well as Outland Award finalist La’el Collins, leave early. LSU doesn’t sign its usual top-10 recruiting class, and arguably the top prospect in the country, New Orleans running back Leonard Fournette, pulls a stunner by deciding to go out of state after having the Tigers at the top of his list throughout his recruitment. And to top it off, the Tigers’ arch-nemesis and former coach, Saban, continues his dynastic run over the rest of college football, with Alabama winning its third straight national title.

February 15, 2013

Auburn notes: No. 7 Florida brings consistency to the matchup; high school coach welcomed to football support staff

Arkansas Auburn BasketballAUBURN, Ala. – Florida has risen to the No. 7 ranking in the country and the unquestioned leader of the SEC pack, simply due to consistency on both ends of the floor.

The Gators’ host on Saturday is still searching for steadiness, unable to string any kind of momentum together during this aging conference season. Florida and Auburn will tip off at 1:47 p.m. ET, with SEC Network carrying the action from Auburn Arena.

The Tigers’ most consistent scorer has been junior guard Chris Denson, and that says a lot considering the Shaw product has only played 13 games due to academic suspension and injury.

Denson is shooting 49 percent from the floor, averaging 12.2 points – and that includes two games where he only totaled one free throw as he shook off the rust from a stress fracture in his foot.

Even Denson’s minutes have been consistent, logging between 25 and 29 minutes in each of his past six games even while he bounces back and forth between a starting and reserve role. During the stretch, he’s averaged 13.7 points to lead the Tigers through a disappointing few weeks.

Leading scorer Frankie Sullivan saw his permanent starting spot slip away Wednesday vs. Arkansas, as he’s failed to score more than 14 since Jan. 16.

Head coach Tony Barbee benched his only two experienced big men – Rob Chubb and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum – for the final 10 minutes of Wednesday’s loss to the Razorbacks, going with rookie Jordon Granger in crunch time. He hasn’t ruled out changes to the lineup.

Meanwhile, Florida (20-3, 10-1) keeps churning along toward an SEC regular season title, with each starter averaging between nine and 13 points this year. It’s an experienced lineup of just juniors and seniors, guided by senior guard Kenny Boynton (12.9 points, 3.3 assists) and senior forward Erik Murphy, who makes 49 percent of his threes.

Billy Donovan’s squad ranks fourth in the nation defensively, allowing just 52.7 points per game.

Historically, Auburn does lead the all-time series 87-72, including 54-23 in Auburn. However, the Gators have won four straight in the matchup, and 14 of 15 going back to 1999. Barbee has never beaten Florida.

Front-office move: Spain Park High School coach Chip Lindsey will accept a position on the Auburn football team’s support staff, according to multiple reports. Lindsey will not be an Auburn coach.

Lindsey had coached Spain Park the past two seasons, and is expected to assist with recruiting efforts.

September 23, 2012

Four score: SEC tabs top 6 in AP, coach polls

The top tier of SEC football may never have been this strong.

Four SEC teams have a stranglehold on the top six spots in Sunday morning’s release of the Associated Press college football poll.

Defending national champion Alabama moved one step closer to a unanimous No. 1 spot, as it remained top-ranked for the fourth consecutive week. After surviving a scare at Auburn, LSU dropped a spot to No. 3 behind Oregon (with the Ducks’ impressive victory over Arizona), but the Tigers still held on to a single first-place vote.

Following No. 4 Florida State, which succeeded in a shootout over Clemson with College GameDay on hand, Georgia and South Carolina round out the top six.

The No. 6 Gamecocks, which blew out Missouri Saturday night, were 80 points ahead of upstart Kansas State, which edged out Stanford, West Virginia and Notre Dame to round out the top ten. KSU was the week’s biggest leaper after shocking then-No. 6 Oklahoma in Norman.

Florida checks in at No. 11 after throttling Kentucky to advance three spots, and No. 21 Mississippi State bumped two rungs with its win over South Alabama.

The top of the USA Today poll was identical in terms of the top six. Florida is ranked No. 12 by the coaches, and Mississippi State raised four spots to No. 19.

Texas A&M and Tennessee are receiving votes in both polls.

-AB