AUBURN, Ala. — Nick Marshall pulled off the rarest of feats last Saturday.
What was this unlikely accomplishment?
Auburn’s coaching staff said the junior signal-caller improved, despite committing more turnovers in his second start than his debut outing. Yes, it was only one turnover — a fumble in the third quarter that led to a field goal by Arkansas State — but it was still more than he had against Washington State, when he was flawless protecting the football.
So as much as coaches preach that ball security is paramount, Marshall made enough gains in other areas to overshadow his one blemish.
“Nick improved from Week 1 to Week 2 and we expected him to,” head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “He executed that deep ball extremely well and he was more comfortable. He did make some mistakes, but at the same time there were mistakes around him that probably made his mistakes look a little worse than they were. So we've got to get better as a whole offense to help him as he grows in this offense also.”
Rhett Lashlee saw many of the same things his boss did. Auburn’s offensive coordinator noted how Marshall settled into a rhythm from the start, going 4-for-5 and tossing his first career touchdown on the game’s first possession.
What made the touchdown even better, he said, was that Marshall shook off a missed opportunity on the previous play.
“I think he could have held the ball a split-second longer, and we'd have hit Sammie (Coates) for a touchdown,” Lashlee said. “(But Marshall) came back and made a great throw and Marcus (Davis) made a great catch.”
There were rough patches as well. Those are to be expected, Lashlee said, given the constantly shifting nature of a 60-minute football game. With the benefit of replaying Saturday’s contest on film, Lashlee came away pleased with the Georgia native’s all-around performance.
“As a whole, I think he felt more comfortable,” Lashlee said. “That's going to have to continue moving forward because we're going to have to make a lot of plays in the passing game as well in conference play.”
The Tigers’ offensive numbers back up Lashlee’s assertion that the passing game will have to pick up the pace; through two games, 71.1 percent (96 of 135) of Auburn’s offensive snaps have been rushing attempts. On the flip side, Marshall has thrown for 246 yards and two touchdowns while completing 55.6 percent (20-for-36) of his passes.
At some point this season, the Tigers will likely have to take to the air often to emerge victorious. And when that time comes, Malzahn said his team will be prepared.
“We're probably about as comfortable as you can be with a guy who has only started two games so far and with an inexperienced receiving crew,” he said. “At the same time, we've worked on those situations in practice and we'll have a plan. We'll feel good about that plan when it happens.”
Part of that confidence comes from what the coaches have seen in practice. Marshall doesn’t show up on game day and transform into a different player than he was during the week. The clean, interception-free games are simply an extension of what he does against teammates.
“More times than not, if you practice well as a person or as a team, you play better,” Lashlee said. “I thought Tuesday and Wednesday last week, we had good practices. (Marshall) did have a better week last week, because I think he was more comfortable. Getting that first game out of the way has to give anybody some confidence. So that's got to keep happening this week.”
As Marshall continues to progress in his command of the offense, so too does the coaching staff’s willingness to open up more of the playbook. But one thing that Lashlee hates is putting a “percentage” on how much of the offense is at Marshall’s disposal.
Each Saturday, the team enters with a firm game plan.
Percentages are irrelevant.
“We have not consciously said, ‘Oh, we can't do this, we can't do that,’” Lashlee said. “We've maybe kept in mind his strengths and other guys’ strengths in what we decide to do. But I get asked that every week — I really don't know a percentage. I know that when we walk into a game that we've got enough in our arsenal to win the football game.”