AUBURN, Ala. — Nick Marshall is a man of many talents.
On numerous occasions this season, Auburn’s quarterback has shown off his phenomenal arm strength. More recently, he’s let his feet do the talking, rushing for 100 or more yards three times in the past five games, including a 214-yard, two-touchdown effort last Saturday. His acclaimed physical gifts might be the least important attributes he possesses heading into the Tigers' next matchup, however.
Praised time and again for how level-headed he remains over the course of a game, it may never figure more prominently for Marshall than it will Saturday against Georgia.
The backstory: From Georgia to Auburn
The Bulldogs, of course, are Marshall’s former team. At that time, he didn’t even play offense, as he spent every game of Georgia’s 2011 season at cornerback, appearing mainly on special teams and finishing with five tackles. Just a month later, he was gone, dismissed from the team (along with fellow defensive back Chris Sanders and wide receiver Sanford Seay) for their reported involvement in stealing money from another teammate’s dorm room. (No charges were ever filed in the case.)
Fast forward 21 months later, past the decision for Marshall to return to quarterback, the position where he set countless high school records at tiny Wilcox County High School. Fast forward past his one season at Garden City Community College in Kansas last year, where he accounted for 4,237 total yards (3,142 passing and 1,095 rushing) and 37 touchdowns, with the scores almost perfectly split between the air (18) and the ground (19). Fast forward past him capturing Auburn’s starting quarterback job during fall camp, as well as beyond the pair of game-winning drives he’s led this year to help the Tigers get to where they are now: 9-1, 5-1 in SEC play, and controlling their own destiny as far as the division and conference crowns are concerned.
With “Georgia week” upon us, what does it mean to the Bulldog-turned-Tiger?
“I’m not too much worried about them,” he said following last week’s victory over Tennessee, the last time he was made available to reporters. “I’m just worried about my team and us (to) keep capitalizing on where we are and just keep moving forward.”
He was asked the question in various forms, but Marshall answered each time in the same fashion. The Bulldogs are nothing but the next opponent on the schedule, and he will treat them as such. In lock-step with the Auburn’s coaching staff, he’s taking everything “one game at a time.”
That stoic manner is exactly what Gus Malzahn wants to see — not that it’s any different from the way Marshall has conducted himself all season.
“He doesn't get too high or too low,” Auburn’s head coach said. “Not much really rattles him. He stays pretty calm no matter what the moment.”
Malzahn picked up on that the moment he began recruiting Marshall, a courtship that first began last year, when Auburn’s head coach held the same title at Arkansas State. The more he got to know Marshall, the less he had any concerns that the Georgia native could be the quarterback to lead his offense.
By the time Malzahn had taken over at Auburn, any doubts he may have had about Marshall’s character or ability had dissolved.
“We did our homework on him,” he said. “The fact that we got here with (defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner (who was at Georgia when Marshall was on the team in 2011) who knew him well and knew the family well (helped). We’re very proud of Nick on the field, off the field. He's got a lot of respect from his teammates as well as his coaches. He's a good person.”
Even-keeled as he may be, Marshall isn’t a robot. Rhett Lashlee said it would be understandable if Saturday’s game is “a little different” for Marshall. After all, it was the same way for the Tigers’ offensive coordinator on Nov. 2, when he returned to face his alma mater, Arkansas, in front of dozens of family and friends from his hometown of Springdale, Ark., a short trip up I-540 from Fayetteville. He made sure to set aside time to see those close to him and talk as much as he could right up until kickoff.
When the game began, however, Lashlee flipped a switch, much as Marshall will have to do versus Georgia.
“You just don’t think that way,” Lashlee said. “People may think you do, but when you're playing or coaching, once the game starts, you're into the moment of what you're doing and not necessarily all those emotional attachments that come with things.”
The teammates: Past and present
Corey Moore couldn’t believe it. One of Marshall’s best friends at Georgia, he didn’t know his teammate had been kicked off the team until someone in class relayed the news to him.
While it shocked the-then freshman, he said it’s something he’s long since forgotten heading into this weekend’s game.
“You just have to go with the flow,” he said. “(You can’t) just dwell on things.”
It’s been a bit tougher for Damian Swann. Arriving as part of the same recruiting class in 2011, he and Marshall grew close during their first summer in Athens. The same goes for that entire freshman class who lived together in the same dorm, a world apart from their older teammates.
“We were really all we had until we moved to ECV with the rest of the team,” Swann said. “I don’t think that bond will really be broken.”
In the early going, Saturday might feel “weird,” Swann admitted. But when push comes to shove, he won’t have a problem getting down to “business” and trying to help the Bulldogs pull an upset on the road.
Marshall’s mind-set is a bit harder to read.
To a man, all of his Tiger teammates said they haven’t had any discussions with their starting quarterback about what Saturday’s game represents for him. The same goes for the events that transpired to bring him to Auburn in the first place.
Everyone has let bygones be bygones, part of the “new day” mantra that has served as the team’s motto this season.
Best they can tell, teammates say they haven’t detected any change in Marshall’s demeanor during the week’s practices.
“I don’t see anything different,” tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “He still has that same focus and drive. He’s still bringing it at practice. During the game, there probably will be a little bit more (emotion) and he’ll definitely want to win this game for us that much more.”
Not that Marshall should play with too much passion, though. As all of his coaches and teammates attest, the junior signal-caller is at his best when he’s calm and collected. Tough as it might be, he has to put any feelings he might have for his friends on the Bulldogs on the back-burner.
If Marshall does that, the Tigers are certain they’ll be fine by game’s end.
“I think his mind is in the right place,” said Greg Robinson, Auburn’s starting left tackle. “He has been a blessing to the team. He’s a hard worker. I think if he just keeps his mind focused on the game we’ll come out with the win.”