ATLANTA — Mark Ledford has seen this all before.
Name a notable aspect from Auburn’s season this year, and the Wilcox County coach can relate it to his team’s run to the Class A state championship in 2009.
The come-from-behind victories Auburn has made routine this year?
Four of Wilcox County’s five playoff victories four years ago, Ledford recalled, were due to fourth quarter rallies.
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Or how about memorable plays?
The Tigers have their tipped, 73-yard touchdown catch to Ricardo Louis to beat Georgia. Similarly, the Patriots had a miracle catch of their own in the 2009 title game against Savannah Christian, as junior Tay Porter batted the ball back to himself with his back on the ground before putting both his hands around it five yards away from the end zone. When Sammie Coates tied Auburn’s game against Alabama last week on a 39-yard touchdown catch with just 32 seconds to play, Ledford had seen that, too. The parallels go on and on.
And it should come as no surprise that the one constant linking these teams together is Nick Marshall.
High school heroics
As Ledford attests, the signal-caller’s flair for the dramatic was apparent well before he arrived on the Plains this past summer.
“Some kids tighten up during that time — they can’t make the throw or they can’t make the catch or they mess up the coverage,” he said. “But Nick has always been clutch.”
And the bigger the moment, Ledford said, the less worried Marshall seemed to become. Though he led numerous fourth quarter comebacks while directing the Patriots’ offense, none was more important than his rally in the state championship game. After Savannah Christian edged ahead 21-14 in the fourth quarter, Marshall came to the sideline — one of the few times during the game that happened, as the then-junior played both ways and rarely came off the field — to talk with Ledford.
In between the change of possessions, he delivered a simple message to his coach.
“He came over and said to me, ‘We’re not losing this game,’” Ledford said. “And you could just feel it.”
That feeling proved to have merit, as the Patriots outscored the Buccaneers 16-0 en route to a 30-21 victory.
It didn’t take long for Marshall to establish himself as the Patriots’ unquestioned leader. In the second game of the 2008 season, Marshall tossed “five or six touchdown passes” — Ledford couldn’t recall exactly how many off the top of his head — with all going to different receivers, to lead Wilcox to a 47-21 victory over Perry.
“And from then on, it was Nick’s show,” Ledford said. “It was just one of those things when he got back there behind center, he just led by his play. He’s always one that before practice, he’s out throwing with receivers. And then after practice, he’s throwing with receivers again.”
As Ledford gladly noted, that commitment to excellence helped Marshall and the Patriots reach their greatest heights, as the 2009 state championship was the school’s first — and still only title — in history.
“I said this before the season started, when a lot of writers were wanting to know about him — and I might have taken some heat for it — but I said that up until this season, Nick Marshall has been the best football player on the field in every game he’s played in,” Ledford said. “(So) not one thing he has done has surprised me.”
‘He’s all about business’
Marshall’s ability to conjure up many of the same jaw-dropping plays he made in high school has the Tigers in the midst of a magical turnaround season. One year after going 3-9 overall and winless in conference play, Auburn is 11-1 and ranked No. 3 in the latest BCS Standings.
And Saturday, the Tigers get a shot to add another chapter to their incredible campaign as they vie for the SEC Championship against No. 5 Missouri.
Of course, the game, as it has been every year since 1994, will be played at the Georgia Dome, a tidbit which wasn’t lost on Marshall: playing there for a chance at a state title was all he cared about in high school.
While many may think it will be difficult for Marshall to block out the distractions of family and friends competing for his attention as he returns to the Peach State, he assured it wouldn’t be an issue.
“I’m just going to get the same people that have been coming,” he said. “I’m not too much worried about people that keep asking me for tickets.”
Not that it came as any surprise to Ledford.
“He’s all about business. I know before all the games, he’s extremely focused,” he said. “You can tell that. I know that he’s wrapped up right now and everybody is wanting a little piece of him. I understand what he’s going through.”
His former coach tries to stay out of Marshall’s way as much as possible. Juggling classes, workouts, practice, study hall and everything else that comes with being a Division I athlete, Ledford knows Marshall has enough on his plate. Their communication has been limited to texting; as the week draws on — normally on Fridays — Ledford will shoot Marshall a text with words of encouragement. Marshall will send his response, and that’s the final bit of interaction until that Saturday’s game concludes.
Ledford was thankful to be in attendance for Auburn’s past two games — the rollicking, incredible victories against Georgia and Alabama, respectively.
“I (was) fortunate I got to see him after the Georgia game a little bit, but there was family around, too,” he said. “And before the Iron Bowl I was down on the field and got to give him a little hug before he went out to warm up. And that’s about it. It’s just kind of been small stuff, not really doing a lot of talking. I know that he’s wrapped up right now.”
A Heisman in his future?
Aside from the talk of a conference title and possible national championship berth, another discussion has started to develop around Marshall this week: that of individual recognition.
Gus Malzahn got the ball rolling Monday, when he said his starting quarterback should “be in the mix” for the Heisman Trophy.
“He is one of the better players in college football,” Malzahn said. “He is leading our team.”
Rhett Lashlee was every bit as effusive in his praise of Marshall. As Auburn’s offensive coordinator pointed out, this season doesn’t seem to have any clear-cut favorite for the bronze trophy. With that in mind, Lashlee said, voters need to look at the players most intertwined with their team’s success.
Few players, Lashlee believes, fit that description better than Marshall.
“He just seems to make play after play after play,” Lashlee said. “The other night (against Alabama): no turnovers, three touchdowns against, at the time, the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 team in the country. And big-time plays when we needed them: a third-down, 45-yard touchdown run, a second-down touchdown pass that can't be thrown any better and, of course, with 32 seconds left, a touchdown pass to tie the game. I don't know what all you've got to do, but I'm proud of him.”
While it still appears to be a long-shot at best, Marshall could boost his Heisman candidacy with a big performance on Saturday.
And it doesn’t hurt that his command of the playbook has never been better.
“There were some things that we used to do that I wasn’t comfortable with, but it just took more practice time and more effort at practice,” Marshall said. “Then I just took my time I had available — not in class or anything — just watching more film and just watching what I mess up on, and just going out in practice and correcting it.”
He didn’t downplay that he’s looking forward to Saturday for more than just the opportunity to play for a conference crown.
“It’ll be great (being) back in the home state,” he said. “but then again I’m not going to get overwhelmed by it. It’s just another team. (We’re going to) keep doing what we do best.”
As it is, no player will be familiar with the lay of the land Saturday than Marshall.
Along with the state championship game in 2009, he also played in the Georgia Dome in 2007 (in a state semifinal game with Wilcox) and twice in 2011, when he was still a cornerback at Georgia.
“They’ve got a lot to deal with this week in putting the (Alabama) game behind them that they just played and going and playing in the Dome,” Ledford said. “Knowing that Nick has been there before, too, can only help. That’s one thing you don’t have to worry about: him going in there and being in awe of a venue and knowing his surroundings.”
Without question, Ledford acknowledged, Marshall has been great this season.
But his old coach knows Marshall is still capable of far more.
And who’s to question him?
After all, there’s no greater source than the man who’s already witnessed it before.
“I think he’ll stay focused and the team will stay focused," Ledford said. "But I would look for Nick to be at his best this weekend with what’s on the line."