AUBURN, Ala. -- Johnny Manziel. AJ McCarron. Aaron Murray. Zach Mettenberger. A host of last season's star SEC quarterbacks are set to enter the NFL, leaving many to suggest that the conference has no big names remaining at the position in 2014.
Don't sleep on Auburn's Nick Marshall.
Despite arriving from junior college just months before the 2013 campaign, Marshall helped key the Tigers' remarkable turnaround from a 3-9 record in '12 to a 12-2 mark and a BCS title game berth in January. That alone would typically merit undisputed star status heading into the following season. But since Auburn's offense was built primarily around the run -- highlighted by Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason's 1,816 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns -- Marshall, a dynamic athlete and former all-state basketball player, is often overlooked. He ran for 1,068 yards while throwing for a modest 1,976; hence, it seems easy to dismiss him in the conversation about elite returning quarterbacks.
That's a mistake.
"He's got an NFL arm," second-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Marshall. "He has as strong an arm as you'll see. He can make all the throws."
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Fans didn't see much of that arm last year. But in Auburn's spring game on Saturday, the rising senior completed 13-of-22 attempts for 236 yards with four touchdowns in one half of action. The scoring plays included 59- and 27-yard passes to Quan Bray. Marshall narrowly missed connecting on two other deep balls down the sideline, but his wide receivers made catches just out of bounds.
"We're just focusing on throwing the ball down the field," Marshall said afterward. "That's the emphasis this year. "
Auburn's run-heavy offense from last fall -- it took to the ground on 72 percent of its plays -- was initially born out of necessity, then continued because it was so effective. The Tigers averaged 6.3 yards per rushing attempt, fourth in the nation. Marshall, who beat out then-freshman Jeremy Johnson for the starting job in preseason camp, had just a few months to immerse himself in Malzahn's offense after arriving from Garden City (Kan.) Community College. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee required some time to learn what their quarterback did best.
"We didn't have a lot of information about him that you normally would have," Malzahn said in his office last week. "We tried to give him bits and pieces of the offense, and coach Lashlee and myself were in the evaluation process of him probably the first four games, figuring out what his strengths were and trying to build around those things."
Both Marshall and his coaches say the Tigers' SEC championship form didn't truly take shape until a 45-41 win at Texas A&M on Oct. 19. Auburn racked up 379 yards on the ground, led by Mason's 178, but Marshall accounted for 336 total yards (236 passing, 100 rushing) and four touchdowns.
"The Texas A&M game, when we went on the road and won that one, a couple throws I made in that game, I just knew that I could be an SEC quarterback," Marshall said last week.
By season's end Marshall was making some eye-opening passes in the Tigers' biggest games. In the first quarter of the SEC Championship Game against Missouri on Dec. 7, he faked a handoff, rolled left, eluded a pass-rusher and uncorked a 38-yard dart on the run to Sammie Coates in the end zone. On a third-and-14 against Florida State in the national title game on Jan. 6, he effortlessly fired a 26-yard strike to Marcus Davis between three defenders.
Of course, Auburn faced that third-and-long situation because Marshall previously held the ball for too long before committing an intentional grounding penalty. "In any quarterback's defense, your first year in the system where you don't have the spring [beforehand], you're going to be doing a lot of thinking and so you're more hesitant," said Lashlee. "It's harder to be consistent with your accuracy and decision-making, and that's just what we saw. One minute he'd make a fantastic throw and the next minute we'd miss one that he can easily make."
It stands to reason that Marshall's consistency will improve with a full offseason in the system. Lashlee has set a target goal of improving the quarterback's completion rate from just below 60 percent to at least 65, if not 70. If that happens, Auburn's passing attack could morph from its limited state in 2013 to potentially its biggest strength in '14.
A year ago the Tigers entered the season with little established talent at receiver. Now, they return their top four wideouts -- Coates, Ricardo Louis, Davis and Bray -- as well as rising junior Melvin Ray. And this spring they welcomed 6-foot-2, 216-pound D'haquille Williams, the nation's top-rated juco prospect (and its only five-star juco recruit), according to Rivals.com. Williams, from Gulf Coast (Miss.) Community College, finished Saturday's scrimmage with a game-high five catches for 88 yards and a score.
Auburn also brings back four starters on its offensive line. Replacing left tackle Greg Robinson, a projected top-10 pick in May's NFL draft, won't be easy, but the two contenders to take his spot, Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller, are veterans.
Marshall will have no shortage of pieces around him. Now it's a matter of refining his craft. Both he and his coaches say he made throws this spring that he couldn't make last year. "There's a lot of timing and rhythm throws that in the past he hadn't been asked to make as much," said Lashlee. "We're big on those things."
Still, the main reason to expect a big season out of Marshall is simple. He's far more comfortable in Auburn's system than he was last fall.
"Not being able to be in spring ball last year, that kind of hurt me," Marshall said. "I was kind of behind the offense. Coming into this year, having the whole spring, I feel more comfortable with all the plays and making all the calls."
Said Lashlee: "Make no mistake, Nick was an electric player in the zone read last year. You can't deny that. At times he was a very solid passer. It's just all about trying to bring the whole package together at a consistent level."
It's a strange but true fact that in Malzahn's nine seasons as a college coordinator or head coach, he has never returned his starting quarterback for a second campaign. One-year stints at Arkansas (2006) and Arkansas State ('12) contributed to that trend, but he's certainly imagined the possibilities. "Obviously if you had Cam Newton back for his senior year it probably would have been a lot of fun," Malzahn said.
It's also fun to envision what a second season might look like for a quarterback who nearly led his team to a national championship in 2013. There were 13 seconds remaining on the clock when Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston hit Kelvin Benjamin in the Rose Bowl end zone for the game-winning score last January. Auburn's coaches and players clearly haven't forgotten.
"You come up 13 seconds short of winning the whole thing, you use that as motivation," said Malzahn. "We need to try to find a way to get better, try to get back."
"We were 13 seconds away," said Marshall. "We're just trying to bring it to our game this year to be 13 seconds better than we were last year."
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There are far too many variables to say whether Auburn can pull it off. For one, it's not likely to enjoy another Miracle at Jordan-Hare or Kick Six, much less two improbable plays in the same season. It must replace standout defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback/return specialist Chris Davis, and its schedule includes trips to Kansas State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, while South Carolina, an 11-win squad last year, replaces 5-7 Tennessee.
And if the Tigers are fortunate enough to reach the new four-team College Football Playoff, they'll need to be 60 minutes and 13 seconds better.
However, it seems all but certain that Marshall, barring injury, will be one of the premier players in the SEC. That would've sounded implausible two years ago, when the Pineview, Ga., product -- who began his career as a defensive back at Georgia -- was one of three players dismissed from the Bulldogs following a dorm-room theft of a teammate. In the frenzy to figure out his next stop, Marshall said he had only a few days to decide whether to pursue an opportunity at cornerback or quarterback. Ultimately, he wanted to return to his native position.
"There's a lot of people that really don't think I can throw the ball," Marshall said. "I did it a lot in high school and know I can still do it."
He'll do it plenty this fall. Malzahn has worked wonders throughout his career with quarterbacks far less talented than his current protégé. As the 2014 season approaches, the possibilities are enticing.
"I want him to be the best he can be because I know with the talent he has," said Lashlee. "If he can maximize his potential, it's going to be a lot of fun to watch this year."