The blurry four-man Auburn quarterback race came into focus onMonday, and the two primary options aren't exactly familiar faces.
Junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson beat out junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace and will split first-team reps this week, according to Jay G. Tate of AuburnSports.com. Wallace will continue to work at quarterback primarily with the second team while Frazier—the 2010 USA Today national high school offensive player of the year—moved to safety.
So what do the two newcomers bring to the table?
Marshall has a tremendous amount of upside, but he is incredibly raw.
He threw for 3,142 yards, rushed for 1,095 yards, tossed 18 touchdowns and rushed for 19 last season for Garden City (Kan.) Community College. He was an accomplished athlete at Wilcox County High School, excelling at quarterback, defensive back and on the basketball court.
He played defensive back at Georgia in 2011 before being dismissed following an off-the-field incident.
One look at Marshall's community college highlight reel, and you can see what makes him an attractive option for head coach Gus Malzahn.
He has a huge arm, athleticism to extend plays and speed to be a home run threat. He isn't "a converted cornerback," he's a dynamic playmaker who can make an immediate impact in a system that's suited to fit his talents.
Malzahn's system is just that. He doesn't have to have a dual-threat at quarterback to be successful, but the addition of a running threat at the position adds to what already is a dynamic, run-based power attack out of the spread.
It's Marshall's accuracy that's the question, which is due in part to some sloppy footwork.
He threw 20 picks last season at Garden City, and even though the Broncbusters adjusted their system shortly before the season to fit Marshall's skills, that's way too many even for someone who was a bit rusty when he won the job.
Ball security has been one of Marshall's primary focuses this fall, according to Malzahn (h/t: Joel A. Erickson of AL.com):
He's done a solid job up to this point. You know, that's our focus, not just Nick, but we're definitely stressing it, Coach (Rhett) Lashlee's stressing it, and so far in fall camp, (Marshall has) done a solid job with it.
Malzahn doesn't need a dynamic playmaker like Cam Newton at quarterback to be successful. He turned a remarkably average Chris Todd into the SEC's third-most efficient passer in 2009 (145.73) and helped cut down Ryan Aplin's interceptions from 16 to four last season at Arkansas State.
Auburn has the running game to be successful, and if Marshall has cut down on his mistakes and is making smart decisions, he'll likely exit camp with the job.
Johnson has been the surprise.
The reigning "Mr. Football" in the state of Alabama was the least likely of the four to become a finalist, but had a fantastic scrimmage on Saturday which impressed wide receiver Quan Bray, according to Brandon Marcello of AL.com:
He did real good. He looked different from the first scrimmage. He was a little nervous in the first scrimmage. You know, coming out of high school you will be. But he showed a lot of composure today.
He ran a similar offense to Malzahn's at Carver High School in Montgomery, Ala. At 6'5", 219-pounds, he has the size, arm strength and accuracy that are reminiscent of former Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell. Johnson threw for 3,193 yards, tossing 31 touchdowns and only seven picks last season at Carver, adding 706 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns.
In the highlights above versus Auburn High School, you can see his accuracy on the intermediate routes, the zip he has on the ball and his ability on the ground.
He's not as much of a threat on the ground as Marshall is, but certainly enough to be dangerous in Malzahn's system.
For Johnson, it's all about acclimation. High school accolades are great and certainly a good sign of things to come, but the speed of the game is much different at this level.
Starting a true freshman in the SEC would be a major statement, and if Auburn goes in that direction, it will likely mean a few speed bumps along the way for the 2013 Tigers.
You don't bring in a junior college quarterback if you don't think he can win right now, so Malzahn would probably like to start Marshall, redshirt Johnson and let Wallace serve as the primary backup unless an extended absences forces him to burn Johnson's redshirt year.
That would allow Marshall to continue his progression as a quarterback in 2013 and give Johnson more time to adjust to the speed of the game and contend for the job either as a redshirt freshman in 2014 with Marshall or inherit the job in 2015.