BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Nick Marshall’s feats with his feet are well-documented.
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.”