AUBURN, Ala. — It’s easy to take a quick glance at Nick Marshall’s statistics from last season and immediately reach the conclusion that improvements can be made in the passing game.
Marshall, entering his second season as Auburn’s starting quarterback, doesn’t dispute that one of his top aims is to boost his passing numbers considerably. What may be harder to fathom is that he believes the same type of gains are a possibility in the Tigers’ zone-read scheme.
Last season, Marshall and Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason were the driving forces behind Auburn’s dominant ground game, which led the nation in rushing with 328.3 yards per game.
Year 1 was spent learning the intricacies of the read-option.
Year 2 will be about perfecting it.
“It’s just something that we do and it’s something I do real well,” Marshall said. “Coach (Gus) Malzahn, he’s going put you in position to do something very well. You just take it and run with it from there.”
This spring, Malzahn said taking advantage of Marshall’s talents means staying true to the core tenets of the offense.
“Our run game, our play-action game, we’re going to really be able to slow down and try to get really good at what we want to,” he said. “That will give us flexibility in the fall to have some wrinkles off that.”
Not that the signal-caller was mistake-free last season. That was far from the case. After all, the Tigers’ fumbled 30 times last year, with Marshall responsible for nearly half (14) of them. Of those 30 fumbles, 11 were recovered by the opposition.
Marshall was credited with six of the lost possessions.
When asked to pinpoint the cause of the issues, Marshall said it was “coming from the mesh point,” leaving his running back in a bad position to receive the handoff.
“We’ve worked on that,” he said. “We’re not going to put the ball on the ground this year.”
Still, few question Marshall’s ability to run the ball. The same can’t be said of his arm. For all of his arm strength — which he was able to showcase when the Tigers' run-heavy attack actually decided to take to the air last season — all too often, Marshall ended up overthrowing his intended receiver. Many times, with a tad more touch, these would have resulted in easy touchdowns for pass-catchers who had ample separation from their nearest defenders.
Don’t count Rhett Lashlee among those worried.
By the end of next season, he’s confident Marshall will have proved the naysayers wrong, showing that he’s a “complete quarterback,” one equally dangerous with his arm or his feet.
“I know it matters, he cares about it, it matters to him,” Lashlee said. “He's got a really live arm, he's got good arm talent. As the season went on, he got more games under his belt, I think you were able to see him improve in certain areas. Now, you just hope he's well-rounded. It's not a deal where they say, ‘Hey, if we can stop him running the ball, we beat him.’ Or ‘Hey, if we can take away the deep ball, we beat him. You hope it's this: Hey, whatever they want to take away, that's great. We're going to beat them with the other thing.”
Do that, Lashlee believes, and Marshall will impress upon NFL teams that he can be a franchise quarterback.
“Everybody says it, because he's talented enough to do a lot of things at the next level,” Auburn’s offensive coordinator said, “but I don't think there's any doubt in my mind or his mind that, if he matures and develops the way he's capable of, I don't see any reason why he wouldn't be a quarterback.”
But first things first.
Right now, Lashlee assured that Marshall’s sole focus is “being the quarterback at Auburn.” Marshall agreed. Late last season, he knew just 25 percent of the playbook. With the benefit of time, Marshall noted every aspect of the offense is now second nature to him.
His teammates have noticed.
“He knows the offense like the back of his hand now, and he’s just getting better and better,” starting right guard Chad Slade said. “Last year, he was introduced to the offense and he was new to it, but now it’s like it clicks for him.”
As fast as Auburn’s offense operates during practices, it still isn’t where the coaching staff wants it to be.
“Not as of right now,” Marshall said. “We’ve still got some new guys coming in and learning the offense. When we get them down pat by the end of spring, we’ll be down and ready.”
The key is carrying that into the fall.
Should that happen, Auburn could find itself in the same place as last season: in the thick of the national championship hunt.
In Marshall’s mind, anything less would be unacceptable.
“Coming off last season, the expectations this year are high,” he said. “Me and the guys, we know what the expectations are and we just attack in practice. It’s relentless football every day. We’re getting better.”