AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee doesn't care about stats.
He cares about how a player performs in a high pressure situation. That’s why he's glad Nick Marshall is on his side.
Regardless of how he performs over the course of a game — for better or worse — Lashlee and the Tigers have an unshakeable belief that Marshall will lead them to victory when the stakes are highest.
“He probably couldn't even tell you what he does, other than certain guys are just born with this ability to win and make plays and to elevate the play of others,” Lashlee said. “They can play the great the whole game and do it or they can have a bad game, but when it matters, do it. Some guys just have that. So far from what we've seen, he's one of those guys that has that.”
Engaging in self-adulation has never been an issue for the junior quarterback. Marshall, who was not made available for interviews this week, says little, preferring to let his play speak for itself. Count that as one more reason Lashlee admires him.
That reverence isn’t just confined to Auburn’s locker room, however.
Lashlee pointed to the Georgia game as one such example. After each one of his carries against the Bulldogs — which totaled 19 in all — his former teammates helped him up.
This was done, Lashlee felt, simply because of the respect they hold for Marshall and the way he carries himself.
“He’s not a guy they were trying to injure or treat poorly,” the coach said. “They were treating him better than they treated anyone else on our team. I know that. That’s just the kind of guy he is. Everybody likes him. He’s a humble guy. He’s a team guy.”
And one the Tigers believe they couldn’t do without. When asked how they got to be 10-1, junior running back Tre Mason quickly credited Marshall’s dual-threat capabilities as one of the key components of this season’s turnaround.
Fellow junior C.J. Uzomah echoed that sentiment.
“(Opponents) don’t know if he’s going to run it on them for 65 or throw a Hail Mary pass for 70 and just end someone’s season,” the tight end said. “He’s a playmaker (and) he’s one of the best athletes I’ve seen play quarterback. So it’s been huge in terms of where we’re at as a team and in terms of the receivers and running backs, knowing that if they’re kind of down, he’ll pick them back up and he’ll make plays.”
It’s those attributes that worry Nick Saban. Alabama’s coach has watched as much film as he can on Marshall. While Marshall has played well “all year long,” it has been taken up a few notches in recent weeks, Saban said. Despite having a roster stacked with NFL-ready talent, Saban was in awe of Marshall, who he called a “phenomenal athlete.”
And forget just focusing on one aspect of his game.
“You certainly can't say, 'OK, we're just going to stop this guy running,”' Saban said. “He's made a lot of big plays. He's an especially good deep ball thrower. That in and of itself creates a lot of issues and a lot of problems if you're a defensive player. I think the guy is one of the most talented guys in our league at his position, even though his style may be a little bit different. Relative to what he does for them in their offense, he's as effective as anybody we've played.”
Teammates vouch that the Georgia native has successfully navigated his most difficult challenge: the balance between being the face of Auburn’s program — at the game’s most prominent position, no less — versus fitting in with the rest of the team.
“On the field and off the field, he's a leader. That doesn't change,” Mason said. “He's funny off the field. He's cool. But when we get on the field, it's strictly business and we've got to figure out ways to execute our offense. That starts with him. We're locked in at practice, he's locked in, and he's getting everybody fired up.”
It’s a stark contrast to when he first arrived in Auburn. Back then, Marshall was still trying to learn how to express himself. Dee Ford recalled their first interaction. Hailing from the small, South Georgia community of Pineview, Marshall spoke with a heavy country accent. Not being able to make heads or tails of it, Ford asked the future starting quarterback to repeat himself.
It was all done out of kinship, though, as the senior defensive end was doing his best to help make Marshall’s transition easier.
“I think me and (defensive tackle) Jeffrey (Whitaker) talked to him and just let him know that we wanted to make everything very comfortable for him, because we knew when we saw him throw the ball, that was going to be our quarterback,” he said of their June conversation. “ He handled everything well. He didn’t force it. He naturally became a leader and took everything one day at a time with the workouts.”
Five months later, Marshall has the Tigers on the verge of the SEC Championship Game.
“He’s definitely produced,” Ford said. “You can’t deny that.”