Nick Marshall's first go-round as a starting quarterback in the SEC worked out just fine last season. Just a year-and-a-half removed from being a defensive back at Georgia, the Pineview, Ga., native won the starting quarterback job at Auburn two-and-a-half weeks before the start of last season and came within 13 seconds of winning a national title.
The thought of "what could have been" eats him up.
“He beats himself up all the time,” cornerback Trovon Reed said, per AuburnTigers.com. "He says ‘We could have won, we could have won.’ I believe in him 100 percent. I know he’s going to take us back to the promised land.”
Head coach Gus Malzahn's track record producing 1,000-yard rushers (11 in eight seasons as a college coach) likely means that the Tigers will be potent on the ground again in 2014. But if Marshall can evolve as a quarterback, this offense will be even more difficult to defend.
Auburn will hold its annual spring game this Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and here's what to look for during the debut of "Marshall 2.0."
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Auburn's offense wasn't complicated a year ago. They pounded the rock with a multi-dimensional rushing attack and then took the top off the defense when the time was right. Marshall's critics pointed to his lack of touch as the one thing that's limiting Malzahn from truly unleashing the full playbook. The scheme worked last year, and now the coaching staff has a firm grasp of what Marshall can do and what he needs to work on.
Touch on his intermediate routes is the most glaring issue.
He proved in his first season as starting quarterback that he's an elusive runner with track-star speed who can also launch the ball 70 yards with the flick of a wrist. But he sacrificed accuracy when he took off velocity on short and intermediate routes, which has been a point of emphasis this spring.
With 6'2", 216-pound D'haquille Williams, the top junior college wide receiver in the class of 2014, joining the team over the winter, Marshall now has another big-time option over the middle and as a deep threat. The duo of Williams and rising junior Sammie Coates will present matchup nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.
But they'll be even more haunting if Marshall can keep the defense honest over the middle.
Don't Always Swing for the Fences
There's no questioning Marshall's arm strength. Whether it's on the run or in the pocket, he proved in his first season on the Plains that stretching the field isn't an issue, with 8.3 yards per attempt.
According to Alex Byington of the Opelika-Auburn News, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said that the goal this season is for Marshall to complete 65-70 percent of his passes after completing 59.4 percent of them in 2013.
“We track it everyday in team settings, whether that’s scrimmage or just team versus defense, 11-on-11. His completion percentage has gone up,” Lashlee said. “It’s up a little bit in 7-on-7 as well. I think that goes back to sometimes he hits the check-down. There’s nothing wrong with that. He knows where everybody is going to be.”
So what does that mean in the spring game?
Marshall needs to make the smart decision, which isn't always the one that will result in six points. If he ignores deep options that are covered in favor of hitting his checkdowns and moving the chains on routes over the middle, it'll serve as a sign that he has progressed as a quarterback.
Diversify the Portfolio
Coates was Marshall's favorite target last season, and at times, it looked as if he was the only target. Coates caught 42 of Auburn's 173 completions last season and is a proven commodity as a deep threat (21.48 yards per catch). So, in the spring game, Marshall needs to spread the wealth around.
A lot of attention will be paid to the newcomer Williams, but Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray, Marcus Davis, Melvin Ray and tight end C.J. Uzomah all return and should have bigger roles as receivers in 2014.
Get those guys some work.
Malzahn and Lashlee know what worked last year, and now's the time to expand upon that by getting other receivers involved in the game plan.
If he can do that, this Auburn offense will be tough to stop.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All statistics are courtesy of CFBStats.com.