AUBURN, Ala. — Nick Marshall left Auburn among the career leaders in passing yards, passing touchdowns, touchdowns responsible for and total offense despite spending just two years at quarterback. But despite his impressive career numbers — and helping the Tigers win the SEC championship in 2013 that led to an appearance in the BCS title game — Marshall isn't being given much of a look at the position by NFL talent evaluators.
There's one person who still believes Marshall could play quarterback, though. And that's his college coach, Gus Malzahn.
"In the right system, not only could he play quarterback, but he could be very successful," Malzahn said at Auburn's Pro Day last month. "In the short time that he's been here ... he's one of the better zone-read runners in the history of college football, in my opinion. You look at what he did the last two years (and) against our rival (Alabama), he set the school record for total offense against the best players on one team, so he can do it at the highest level."
Malzahn's support aside, most project Marshall's NFL future hinging on whether he can play in the secondary.
"Is he going to be a starting corner or a starting safety?" NFL.com draft analyst Mike Mayock said last month. "To me, the ideal role for him is to draft him as a developmental defensive back, let him be a core special teams player and throw in a zone-read (quarterback) package just to mess with other teams throughout the season."
Marshall does have experience as a defensive back, playing both ways during his high school career in Wilcox County. And in his freshman season at Georgia, he appeared in 13 games as a backup corner. But until he moved back to corner at the Senior Bowl in January, it had been nearly four years since he had played defense.
To try to make up for these lack of reps, Marshall said he is willing to do anything, no matter how tedious.
"(NFL coaches) told me a lot about how you earn your way on the field: by playing a lot of special teams," he said. "So that's what I'm going to do: play on special teams and do whatever it takes to get on the field."
With athleticism to burn, Malzahn is sure it won't be difficult for Marshall to carve out his own niche at the next level.
"He's a good enough kid and a good enough athlete where he'll help some team at whatever position he decides to play," the coach said. "I'm going to support him 110 percent regardless of what position, because he's done a great job (and) been a great example and a great leader for us."
Receiver Sammie Coates, an NFL draft hopeful himself and Marshall's teammate the past two years, couldn't have agreed more.
"Everybody (has) got room to improve but Nick does a great job because he’s an athlete. He can run, cut fast," Coates said. "He can catch on quick. He’s one of those guys that does a great job no matter what he does. You can put him at cornerback, safety, running back — he’s going to be one of those guys that makes plays on the field. He’s a great player and I’m pulling for him."
Mayock is also a fan of what he's seen from Marshall, believing the Georgia native is worth drafting. But what is a reasonable projection of where Marshall could get selected?
"It depends on what you think his value is going to be two to three years from now," Mayock said. "If you truly believe he can be a starting defensive back in the league, he's got one value. If you think he's going to be a perennial backup and a core special teams player, it's a different value. So I think teams are going to do their homework."
Marshall's best bet, however, may be eschewing corner in favor of safety. There are a pair of reasons for this, according to Mayock: first, the 2015 draft is considered to be deeper at corner than safety; secondly, how NFL teams view the role of safeties has changed.
"It's a pass first league, and safeties are expected to cover first," Mayock said, "and you'll give up a little physicality and tackling for that."
That's where Marshall's size works to his advantage. At 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds, he already has the build teams are looking for at the spot.
If Marshall sticks with corner, though, Mayock believes he can be a solid NFL player in due time.
"I just look at his length to start with. He's one of the longer corners in this draft, so 4.54 (40-yard dash time) is fine for his length," the analyst said. "If you're a 5-9 corner, you've got to run faster than that. So if you're talking about a guy that has a chance to be a press corner in the NFL, his height/weight speed is fine. ... His skill set tells you that he's got a chance to be an NFL defensive back."
And an opportunity is all Marshall is looking for as he takes the next step in his career. Sure, a position change isn't ideal for any player. But Marshall knows the challenge ahead of him.
"You've just got to go in there and get everything — fundamentals and technique-wise (down)," he said. "Start from Day 1 in the base and keep learning."