Auburn Football: Why Nick Marshall Is Just Scratching the Surface of His Talents

Justin LeeContributor IJanuary 18, 2014

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For Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, there never has been much time.

As fast as Marshall ran Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offensive system this past season, the junior college transfer was seemingly forced to make individual strides and improvements just as quickly.

After missing out on spring practice and arriving at Auburn midway through last summer, Marshall had just two weeks of fall camp to prove his merit to the Tigers coaching staff and earn the starting quarterback job.

Just three weeks into the season, Marshall was faced with his first big test in Auburn's SEC opener against Mississippi State.

And by the end of the season—just one year after playing in front of empty bleachers at Garden City Community College—Marshall was facing off against Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in the BCS National Championship Game.

Marshall did win the starting quarterback job after just a handful of practices, and he did prove himself against Mississippi State, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with just 10 seconds left on the clock—but he ultimately fell short to Winston and Florida State in the title game and missed out on earning a national championship ring.

With more time to prepare going into his senior year on the Plains, Marshall hopes to rectify that in 2014.

So does Malzahn, who has never had a starting quarterback return for a second season during his entire coaching career in the collegiate ranks.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

"We are really excited about the spring with Nick," Malzahn said last week. "We got a lot of information throughout the year and we can build around his strengths even more. What he did in one year by not going through the year and by winning the job two weeks before the season was phenomenal. I don't know if there has ever been a situation similar to that."

One would be hard-pressed to find a situation similar to the one Malzahn has had to endure during the past eight years, either.

In eight seasons as a collegiate coach—whether it be as an offensive coordinator or a head coach—Malzahn has started eight different quarterbacks.

Starting with his sole season as a co-coordinator at Arkansas in 2006, through two seasons at Tulsa and three seasons at Auburn as an offensive coordinator, and to 2012 at Arkansas State and 2013 at Auburn as a head coach, Malzahn has never coached the same starting quarterback two years in a row.

Now, through the spring and fall, Malzahn will have Marshall back for all of 2014.

"I really think his upside is very high, and he's a natural leader and his teammates have a lot of respect for him as well as his coaches," Malzahn said of Marshall. "This will be the first time that we've actually had a quarterback come back after one year, so we're pretty excited about that."

It's hard to quantify just how much Malzahn will be able to improve Marshall's game through a full set of spring and fall camps, but it is clear that the two have made great strides together when given any time at all to improve Marshall's game.

When Auburn suffered its only regular-season loss of the year at LSU in the fourth week of the season, Marshall was still improving and trying to wrap his brain around Malzahn's system.

The next week, during a bye week before the Ole Miss game, the Tigers spent a week to work on themselves—and then ripped off nine straight wins.

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

A big key to that late-season march to the national championship game was the emergence of the read option, which Marshall says he started to fully grasp after that bye week.

"I just took what we were doing and then embraced it," Marshall said in December, of the Ole Miss game earlier in the year. "We had an off week to work.

"That's when the read option got down to it. I just started trusting my instincts and knew I could just beat the defensive end and kept playing from there."

With Marshall at the helm, the Tigers' ground game became an unstoppable force for much of the season because of that read-option.

Auburn led the nation in 2013 with 328.29 rushing yards per game, and Marshall finished with 1,068 yards on the ground alone.

Most incredibly, Marshall had very limited experience with the option before arriving on the Plains, according to his junior college coach, Jeff Tatum.

"We were more of a pass offense than a run offense out there," Tatum said in early January. "We did a little bit of the zone read. You've got to give Auburn credit. I guess they've refined him a little bit. We did enough of it to say that we did it—but nothing like what they're doing."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

In just one year in Malzahn's offense, Marshall became a star player in the SEC, and he appears poised to be one of the conference's top quarterbacks in 2014.

Perhaps most impressively, Marshall did it all just a year removed from playing in the junior college ranks—and just two years removed from playing defensive back at Georgia.

Through the last four years, through high school, Georgia, Garden City and Auburn, Marshall has played in four different systems—and one of those systems was a defense.

In 2014, Marshall will be in his second year in Malzahn's system, and he could raise his play to an entirely new level.

"I think the big thing is just getting his timing down with him and his receivers," Malzahn said of the improvements Marshall can still make. "And probably just giving him a little more freedom now that he will know the offense even better. Week to week, you have a game plan.

"We're looking forward to spring."


Justin Lee is Bleacher Reports' lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.