A year ago, very few college football fans knew the name Nick Marshall. Now, months after leading his Auburn Tigers to an improbable championship run that came 13 seconds short of a title, Marshall is among the preseason favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.
Even with quarterbacks like Jameis Winston, Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley stealing the spotlight because of their pro potential, Marshall will be the most dangerous of the four because of the system he plays in.
Finding Success in Gus Malzahn's System
Marshall, who was a defensive back at Georgia at one time, found consistent success in Malzahn's offensive system a year ago. He averaged 234.2 yards of total offense per game and became the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
Auburn was so successful running the ball that Marshall didn't have many opportunities to air it out, only throwing for 1,976 yards last year. He had 20 or less passing attempts in eight of Auburn's 14 games in 2013.
This year that could change, though. Playing in the first half of Auburn's spring game, he threw for 236 yards and four touchdowns. Needless to say, Marshall was named the offensive MVP for the spring game.
Per Joel Erickson of AL.com, Coach Malzahn had good things to say about Marshall's progression as a quarterback: "Nick feels a lot more comfortable. Even in the spring game, the casual eye could see, he's a lot more relaxed, he's throwing on the bounce, his eyes are in the right place with his progression."
One thing is simple: Malzahn's offensive philosophy works, and he has the numbers to prove it. The year before he arrived, Auburn's offense ranked 117th nationally. In just one year, the program did a complete U-turn with Malzahn behind the wheel. The Tigers became the second team in SEC history to gain more than 7,000 yards in a season in 2013.
The scariest part of all? Malzahn has never had an offseason with a returning quarterback. Per Bruce Feldman of CBS Sports, Marshall will be Malzahn's first starting quarterback to return for a second season since he has been at the collegiate level.
Last season, Marshall was effective running the football, evident by the 1,068 rushing yards. Per ESPN, Marshall was 30th in the nation in rush yards per attempt and tied for fourth among quarterbacks.
|Rush Yards Per Attempt Among Quarterbacks in 2013|
|Player||School||Yards Per Attempt|
|Cole Gautsche||New Mexico||6.6|
|Jordan Lynch||Northern Illinois||6.6|
|Braxton Miller||Ohio State||6.2|
Marshall improved as the season went on in 2013. The dual-threat quarterback threw four interceptions in his first four games, but he threw only two in his final nine. ESPN Stats & Info showed just how dominant he was down the stretch, with a 88.3 total quarterback rating.
What Auburn Has Returning
Marshall certainly won't be short on offensive weapons this fall, with eight returning starters on offense. All of Marshall's top wide receivers from 2013 return this season, including rising junior Sammie Coates. Coates was Marshall's primary target last year, going for 902 yards and seven touchdowns.
D'haquille Williams, 247Sports' No.1-rated junior college prospect, played well in Auburn's spring game, with 88 yards receiving and a touchdown.
Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis also return at receiver for Malzahn's squad.
With the exception of Greg Robinson, four starters from last season's offensive line return for the 2014 campaign. Robinson was a big part of Auburn's success on the ground last season, but returning four linemen will be huge for this Tigers offense and for Marshall's success.
Marshall is in the driver's seat of a 2014 offense that will be among the most explosive in the nation. Returning eight guys from an offense that averaged 39.5 points per game a season ago sounds like a sure thing, especially with Malzahn calling the shots.
While Auburn faces a tough schedule with teams such as LSU, Alabama and South Carolina, it also allows opportunities for the Tigers to put up a lot of points. This, in turn, likely means big numbers for Marshall.
Of the 11 FBS opponents the Tigers face in 2014, five of them had defenses in 2013 that ranked 60th or higher in points allowed. San Jose State, the Tigers' opponent on Sept. 6, was especially bad, ranking 105th in the category.
The Tigers play South Carolina in late October, and if they would have played a year ago, it would have created a slight matchup problem because of the Gamecocks defensive line. This year, the Gamecocks sent three defensive linemen to the NFL, including No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney, so this game presents an opportunity for Auburn to establish a solid run game.
For what it's worth, Alabama loses six starters on the defensive side of the ball. While typically this would be something to stress about, the Crimson Tide recruit well enough to simply reload.
Other notable games that involve chances for Auburn to score high are Texas A&M (96th in points allowed in 2013), Louisiana Tech (61st) and Arkansas (89th).
Why He's So Dangerous
Marshall may not be the prototypical pro-style quarterback, but he is the perfect fit for this Auburn offense. With Malzahn developing the senior quarterback this summer, Marshall is set to shine. A heavy dose of the run game should be expected again, but Marshall's 22 first-half pass attempts in the spring game speaks for itself.
Malzahn is one of the most creative offensive minds in the game and will find ways to utilize every bit of Marshall's potential this fall.
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