Nick Marshall has shown his Auburn coaches just about everything they could want to see and more out of a new quarterback.
Marshall has displayed flashes of brilliance in each of the Tigers' first four games of the season, whether it be with his playmaking ability on his feet, or through the air with his cannon of an arm.
In just a few short weeks, he has proven that he can make big plays, stay composed in key situations, and lead his team to victory—like he did on a commanding 88-yard, game-winning touchdown drive against Mississippi State in Week 3 with less than two minutes left on the game clock.
"He's much more confident; more comfortable," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of his quarterback on Sunday. "You could tell really after the drive against Mississippi State, for him and the team as a whole, that was a big boost, as it should be."
Marshall has helped reignite what was a stagnant Auburn offense during a 3-9 campaign in 2012. This season, the Tigers are off to a strong start at 3-1, and coaches and fans alike aren't sure what to expect on any given play when the explosive first-year starter is lined up behind center.
But that's the trouble. Marshall has played on both ends of the spectrum this young season—like when the junior started a despondent 6-of-16 for just 31 yards through the first half against LSU in Baton Rouge.
"He had a great week of practice before LSU," Lashlee said. "We just came out in the first half as a whole offense—it's easy to put it on one person—(but) we were very poor. We didn't give ourselves a chance to win."
Auburn and Marshall bounced back in the second half that night with a strong performance, but the 21-0 halftime hole proved to be too deep for the Tigers to climb out of on their way to a 35-21 loss.
But if—if—Auburn had played the way it did the second half for the entire 60 minutes of football, could the Tigers have knocked off heavily-favored LSU in Death Valley?
That's the question Marshall and his teammates had to chew on during Auburn's bye last week.
"I'd love for us to put four good quarters together, and to play disciplined," Lashlee said of his entire offensive unit—Marshall included. "Our guys, we've seen them do it. They know how to do it. It's just growing pains or the maturation process. We've got to get to the point this week where we can play the first quarter through the fourth quarter."
Ultimately, that's the key for Marshall and the Tigers going forward: to play better, more consistently.
At his best, Marshall is a legitimate threat as an SEC quarterback, seemingly just a few steps away from being able to compete head-to-head with the McCarrons, Manziels and Murrays of the league.
Indeed, Marshall's performance against Mississippi State stacks up well against almost any single-game performance by any SEC quarterback in league play this year. Marshall finished that night 23-of-34 for 339 yards and two touchdowns—including a game-winner in the corner of the end zone with 10 seconds left to play.
If Marshall threw for those kinds of numbers every single week, he'd sit atop the conference in yards per game, and in the upper echelon in completion percentage.
But those are huge "ifs." Marshall isn't throwing for 339 yards a game. Instead, subpar performances against Washington State and LSU have dragged his actual numbers down to 202.3 yards per game, with a 58.3 completion percentage on the year.
Still, it begs the question: How good could Marshall be if not for these inconsistencies?
Better yet: How can he and the Auburn coaching staff get past them?
It starts with Marshall's comfort level out on the field.
Taking a look at the first four games of the season, Marshall's production and efficiency spiked in the middle two—against Arkansas State and Mississippi State. One could easily understand why, too. The season opener against Washington State was the junior-college transfer's first SEC start at quarterback in front of a near-capacity Jordan-Hare Stadium crowd.
With those first-game jitters out of the way, Marshall became more efficient with the football in the second week of the season, and exploded to a season-best performance against Mississippi State in Week 3.
Things turned sour for Marshall once again versus LSU, as the quarterback faced another unnerving set of circumstances in his road debut at Tiger Stadium.
With that in mind, combining statistics from Weeks 2 and 3—both home games for Marshall with his first Division I start already under his belt—Marshall is 33-of-51 (64.7 percent) with 486 yards (243 yards per game), four touchdowns, and two interceptions in friendly confines.
Conversely, Marshall finished Weeks 1 and 4 a combined 27-of-52 (51.9 percent) with just 323 yards (161.5 yards per game), no touchdowns and two interceptions in his home and road debuts, respectively.
That could mean that Marshall will be back in his comfort zone once again this Saturday as the Tigers host Ole Miss. Still, that's only one part of the equation to having Marshall live up to his vast potential.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has said for years that he tailors his offense each season to the players he has—particularly at quarterback.
This season has been no different, as observers have seen a newly-tweaked Malzahn offense with Marshall at the helm, with the Tigers calling plays more conservatively through the first two games or so to ease in the first-year starter.
With his shifty feet and big-time arm, Marshall seems like a prototypical candidate to run the hurry-up, no-huddle—but, as Malzahn would be the first to say, there's a lot more to it than that when finding the fit between athlete and scheme.
Each different quarterback fits in Malzahn's offense a different way—and Malzahn has had eight different quarterbacks in his last eight seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, counting Marshall.
Obviously, a key piece to the puzzles lies with how a quarterback operates when the offense is running up-tempo. Fortunately for Auburn, Marshall has handled the frantic pace with ease.
In fact, some of Marshall's best numbers this season have come when the Tigers are at their fastest.
Taking a data set of 31 of Auburn's offensive drives this season—excluding only a few series in which Auburn failed to gain a first down to get its up-tempo offense rolling—and finding a median drive which featured a play every 21.9 seconds, two ranges can be established.
These are the 16 "Fast Drives," in which the Tigers got off snaps every 21.9 seconds or faster, and 15 "Slow Drives," when the Tigers took longer than 21.9 seconds per snap.
Marshall excelled during the faster drives, when the offense was operating under a quick, hurry-up, no-huddle tempo.
Marshall scored each of his four touchdowns this season on frantic, fast-paced drives.
He also doubles his yards-per-completion efficiency when the Tigers attack defenses with pace, rolling up 18.6 yards per completion on the 16 faster drives as opposed to 9.7 in the remaining drives.
Marshall is at his best when he has the defense on its heels, and he has already proven that he's capable of keeping the offensive unit under control as it hustles to each new line of scrimmage. Now, going into the Ole Miss game on Saturday—with four games under Marshall's belt—the hurry-up should no longer be limited as it was in certain spots through the first couple of weeks this season.
There's one more statistical distinction in this same data set that points to another key to Marshall's on-the-field success.
Anyone watching any of Auburn's first four games can tell just how quick Marshall is on his feet, and what kind of an extra weapon that is for the Tigers offense. But looking at those same 31 series from this season, it's easy to quantify just how that ability affects his passing game.
Of those 31 drives this season in which Auburn has made at least one first down, Marshall has rushed for at least four yards 16 times. During those 16 series—in which Auburn makes a concerted effort to have Marshall run the football and force the defense to account for him on the ground—Marshall's passing efficiency sees a spike as a result, jumping to a 67.4 completion percentage from a 59.1 in the remaining drives.
Marshall also averages 15.1 yards per completion on drives in which the defense is thinking about his running ability, as opposed to 13.9 during drives that Marshall has rushed for less than four yards.
But while running the football is a key part of Marshall's game, his biggest weapon is undoubtedly his arm—and his arm strength.
At any given moment, Marshall can make something happen, with NFL-type arm strength and, suddenly, a go-to deep threat in sophomore receiver Sammie Coates.
If Marshall is going to take the next step to becoming an elite quarterback in the SEC, it's going to start with the tools that the recruiters found most impressive during his time at junior college in the first place; his deep ball.
Under Malzahn, he'll have plenty of opportunities to show it off.
Malzahn's offense may be best described as a downhill, run-first system, but it can get vertical at any moment off play-action and misdirection—which is perfect for Marshall and Coates.
It's an offense that breeds big-play opportunities—but one that also needs successes on some of those opportunities to stretch opposing defenses and keep the every-down offense running smoothly.
What's encouraging for Malzahn, Lashlee, and the rest of the coaching staff is that Marshall's big-play ability continues to improve.
Marshall has thrown seven completions for 20 or more yards this season. Marshall had no such plays in the opener against Washington State, and just one in the second game of the season against Arkansas State—but he came up with three of those explosive plays each against Mississippi State and LSU, the Tigers' two most recent outings.
Those seven big completions represent just 6.7 percent of Marshall's 103 pass attempts on the year—but those same seven plays account for 35.1 percent of his passing offense this season (284 of 809 yards).
What that means for opposing defenses is that any given play can go for big yardage when Marshall has the ball in his hands—which means opposing defenses have one more thing to think about after Marshall takes a couple of deep shots down the field each Saturday.
While big, home-run plays wouldn't seem like the obvious answer to solving Marshall's problems with consistency in the every-down game, if he keeps showing off the cannon he has attached to his shoulder—and if Coates keeps running under deep balls and bringing them down—defenses will be forced to respect that threat, and the Auburn offense will be able to take advantage of more underneath.
If Marshall can do that, and stretch the secondary, while pulling underneath defenders in with respect to his legs, all in Malzahn's full-speed no-huddle, suddenly things get a lot tougher on the defense—and a lot easier on Marshall.
At the end of the day, all the tools are there.
He just has to put them all together at once.
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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