Auburn football: With 'instinct to be winner,' Nick Marshall looks for improvements in Year 2 under Gus Malzahn

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 14, 2014 

AUBURN, Ala.Nick Marshall’s debut season was nothing short of a resounding success.

Auburn’s starting quarterback led the team to a 12-2 record, an SEC championship and had the Tigers within 13 seconds of winning the BCS title.

And those are just the team’s achievements.

Individually, Marshall combined for 3,044 yards (1,976 passing, 1,068 rushing) of total offense, the third-best single-season effort in school history. He accounted for 26 touchdowns (14 passing, 12 rushing), tied with Pat Sullivan’s 1970 campaign for second-most in the Tigers’ record book. Marshall produced those numbers despite sitting out the Western Carolina game with a knee injury and leaving the Florida Atlantic contest early in the second quarter after hurting his shoulder.

As good as 2013 was for the Georgia native, statistically speaking, 2014 could be even better.

Crazy as it sounds, Marshall will become the first quarterback Gus Malzahn has had for more than one year at the collegiate level.

And the coach couldn’t be more excited.

“I really think that his upside is very high,” Malzahn said. “He's a natural leader. His teammates have a lot of respect for him as well as coaches.”

None holds him in higher regard than Rhett Lashlee.

Auburn’s offensive coordinator doubles as its quarterbacks coach; as such, no one is in contact with Marshall more often than the 30-year-old assistant. Prior to the SEC championship game, Lashlee recalled that his relationship with Marshall has progressed as most do: the longer you’re around someone, the more you learn about them. Eventually, a trust develops.

The coach and quarterback reached that point long ago.

While many want to credit Lashlee — who was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which goes to college football’s top assistant — for Marshall’s maturation, the offensive coordinator said the praise should be reserved solely for his player.

“He’s been coachable,” Lashlee said. “From Day 1, whether you’re teaching him something early on or whether you’re getting onto him and ripping him or however it is you’re doing it, he responds well all the time. He’s always respectful — ‘Yes sir. No sir.’ Not only does he respond right, but then his actions follow. Very (rarely) have you had to tell him something twice. I give him all that credit, from being coachable and then having the will and the desire to try to get better.”

What areas does the senior-to-be believe need fine-tuning?

“My drop steps and being more accurate with the ball,” he said, “and stepping more into my throws and keep getting more in the read-option with my footsteps.”

Most believe he has Auburn’s zone-read scheme down pat, as he was the trigger man in the nation’s top rushing attack.

That meant, however, that the Tigers’ passing game was relegated to the background. Marshall’s accuracy improved as the season progressed, finishing at 59.4 percent (142-for-239). In addition, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was better than 2:1, tallying 14 scores against six picks.

Still, Marshall and his head coach are looking for continued improvement that comes with the benefit of more practice.

“He throws the ball well. I think the big thing is just getting the timing down with him and his receivers,” Malzahn said. “And then (it is) just giving him probably a little more freedom now that he'll know the offense even better, because week to week, you've got to game plan. It was good for him having that 30 days (between the SEC and BCS title games). I think you could see that in the passing game.”

For Marshall to accomplish so much in a short time — arriving on campus in late June — amazed Lashlee. The coach thought back to the first snap Marshall took with the Tigers: a drop. Less than five months later, he had Auburn on the cusp of a national championship.

Lashlee said it was a testament to Marshall’s character.

“There’s no ego, there’s no laziness,” Lashlee said. “He wants to work hard, he wants to be coachable, he wants to do everything you ask him to do the best he can and win. … He's just got that instinct to be a winner.”

With the season over, Auburn’s coaching staff has an abundance of information it can call upon. Any data that still needs analyzing will be completed before spring practice rolls around.

By then, Malzahn said, the Tigers will tailor their offense to ensure Marshall is even more dangerous come next fall.

“We'll really go back and build around his strengths even more,” he said. “What he did in one year — not going through spring and not winning the job until two weeks before the season — was phenomenal.”

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