AUBURN, Ala. — For the first time in his college coaching career, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has his starting quarterback returning for a second season.
It showed on Saturday afternoon.
Rising senior Nick Marshall completed 13-of-22 passes for 236 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions in a 58-3 win for the Blue team over the White in front of 70,645 fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium during Auburn's spring game.
The performance served as confirmation, of sorts. Confirmation that Marshall, who made a living last season on the ground and on deep passes, has progressed as a passer and can play within the offense.
"He did a good job with his eyes and his progression and didn't put the ball in jeopardy," Malzahn said. "The big thing is being more comfortable. You can see in the pocket, he's more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progressions are good. You can tell that he's really improved."
Even without running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson, Auburn is still confident it can run the ball. It showed on Saturday, as Corey Grant gained 128 yards and scored a touchdown, and Cameron Artis-Payne added 97 and a touchdown.
They were able to do that despite the ground game not being the primary focus for the Tigers this offseason.
"We can be real scary," Marshall said. "We know that we can run the ball. We've been focusing on throwing the ball down the field. That's the emphasis. If we can throw the ball downfield, we are going to be a scary sight this year."
Marshall spread the wealth around to his receivers on Saturday, hitting senior Quan Bray for two touchdowns, junior Sammie Coates for one and junior-college transfer D'haquille "Duke" Williams for another.
While Marshall's development was one of the dominant storylines in the spring game, it was Williams' performance that created the buzz on the overcast afternoon on the Plains.
The No. 1 junior-college prospect in the Class of 2014 was a human highlight reel, catching five passes for 88 yards and the score—a fade in the corner of the end zone where he went up over the defensive back.
Williams' performance was a welcomed sight to Auburn fans, but wasn't a surprise to his teammates.
Will Auburn's 2014 offense be better than the 2013 version?
"Oh yeah, he's a playmaker," fellow wide receiver Sammie Coates said. "He's been making plays since he got here. He can help the team a lot and bring a lot to the table. It's going to be hard to stop him."
Last season laid the groundwork for this veteran-laden offense, and this offseason provided the coaching staff the opportunity to build upon that and take it to the next level. With a potent, multi-dimensional running game, two wide receivers (Coates and Williams) standing 6'2" and tight end C.J. Uzomah in the mix, this team could be even more lethal in the red zone.
"With Duke, he's an aggressive receiver. He wants the ball," Grant said. "He goes up and grabs it. We have big guys in the red zone, and that's going to be a big attribute this year."
Saturday Down South's Jon Cooper agrees:
With Sammie Coates and D'haquille Williams outside, how could Auburn's passing game not be better? Auburn's offense could be nasty.— Jon Cooper (@JonSDS) April 19, 2014
Auburn's first-team offense scored touchdowns on three of its four red-zone possessions and kicked a field goal on the other. The best is yet to come, according to Coates.
"It's going to be a surprise to the world what we do in the red zone."
That sound you hear is opposing defensive coordinators scrambling to the film room to figure out how to stop the "Marshall 2.0" offense.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and spring game statistics were obtained firsthand.