MOBILE, Ala. -- Blake Sims scrambled away from pressure Tuesday. When the former Alabama quarterback found a comfortable spot and looked downfield, he saw one of the orange jerseys worn by South team defenders at Senior Bowl practices. Sims did a double take when he realized who occupied that orange jersey. “It’s Nick,” Sims said.
On Nov. 29, Sims and Auburn’s Nick Marshall started opposite one another at quarterback in a wild Iron Bowl. In his only year as the starter, Sims led the Crimson Tide to an SEC title and a berth in the College Football Playoff. Marshall, meanwhile, led the Tigers to the 2013 SEC title and the BCS championship game. This week, they’ll be teammates, but they won’t play the same position. On Tuesday afternoon, Marshall told Jacksonville Jaguars coaches that he wanted to play cornerback because that position gives him a better shot at succeeding in the NFL. Sims continues to play quarterback, but he knows he may ultimately have to switch positions to make a roster. By the draft, neither of the players who combined to throw for 768 yards and seven touchdowns in Tuscaloosa less than two months ago may be playing quarterback.
For Marshall, the decision seemed rather simple. “Me and my mother talked it over,” he said. “It was just something that was the best for me and my future.” At Tuesday’s weigh-in, Marshall checked in at 6-foot-1 ½ and 210 pounds, undersized for a quarterback. The fact that he played in Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, read-option-heavy offense means Marshall would face a steeper learning curve when he received his first NFL playbook.
But his height makes him a tall cornerback, and NFL teams are enamored with 6-foot-plus corners after watching 6-3 Richard Sherman and 6-1 Byron Maxwell lock down receivers for the Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom secondary. Plus, cornerback isn’t new to Marshall. As a freshman at Georgia in 2011, he played 13 games as a corner and probably would have won a starting job in ‘12 had he not been booted from the team amid allegations that multiple Georgia players, including Marshall, stole from a teammate.
After his dismissal from Georgia, Marshall went to Garden City (Kan.) Community College with the intent to return to the SEC as a quarterback. He did that, but it always seemed a long shot that he would play quarterback in the NFL. For Marshall, who was also twice named the Associated Press Class A player of the year in basketball while at Wilcox County High in Rochelle, Ga., there was little doubt that he would play something in the NFL. The question was when would he accept he needed to switch positions. That acceptance came quickly, and now Marshall must knock off the rust and prove he can still cover receivers. “It’s not like riding a bike,” Marshall said. “It’s going to be a hard transition, but I’m willing to accept the challenge.”
Sims finds himself in a less certain place. He spent four years on the bench at Alabama before winning the starting job as a fifth-year senior. At 5-11 and 223 pounds, he’s at least four inches shorter than NFL coaches would prefer their quarterbacks to be. (Of course, Sims is the same height as one of the quarterbacks starting in the Super Bowl.) Sims’ size and scrambling ability at Alabama suggest he could succeed in the NFL as a running back, and he has some experience at the position. As a redshirt freshman in 2011, Sims appeared in five games as a tailback. But he worked too hard to earn his one year as a starting quarterback, and he isn’t willing to give up on the position yet. “I think I proved to the world that I can play quarterback if I really put my mind to it,” Sims said.
Unlike Marshall, Sims played in a college offense that more closely resembles an NFL offense -- and was coordinated by onetime Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin. That should help as NFL teams pepper Sims with schematic questions. “Lane’s is somewhat similar to the NFL, but how is [Sims] going to progress through this coaching? Now they’re going to throw some routes they didn’t throw at Alabama,” said Ken Mastrole, the Florida-based quarterback coach who trained Sims to win the job at Alabama and who is training him for the draft. “If he interviews well and he shows that he can pick up an offense, he brings that dynamic feature of just being a great athlete and a good quarterback.”
Sims also draws inspiration from another source: regret. He can’t forget the Sugar Bowl, where he threw three interceptions in a 42-35 loss to Ohio State. Sims refuses to watch video of the game, but the memory of Buckeyes lineman Steve Miller intercepting a pass and rumbling 41 yards for a touchdown won’t leave Sims. “It plays over in my head all the time,” he said. “When I talk about Alabama football, it’s the first thing that comes into my mind.”
Sims, who broke down in tears after the game, still blames himself for the loss. Alabama teammates have tried to make him understand the Tide lost as a collective, but Sims can’t let go of the guilt. “I didn’t cry just because I lost the game and it was my last year,” Sims said. “I cried because I let all my teammates down. Maybe there’s something I could have done better for my teammates. They were just reaching out for that trophy and they couldn’t get it.” Sims aches for another chance to take the field in a game. “Maybe I can do something in the NFL to make up for what I did in the Sugar Bowl,” Sims said.
He hopes he can do that at quarterback, but he understands the reality of his situation. The minimum rookie salary in 2015 is $435,000. Few fresh college graduates can hope for that kind of pay in a first job. If it takes a position switch to give himself a better chance at a roster spot, Sims will do it. So, depending on how his Senior Bowl experience goes, Sims may become a tailback in the next few months. “That could happen,” he said. “Maybe some slot or something. But right now, I’m just focused on quarterback.”
So now the quarterbacks who dueled in the Iron Bowl will duel on the practice field. One will keep throwing passes while the other covers receivers. Sims got over the novelty of Marshall at cornerback after a few plays. One of their teammates, however, is having a more difficult time. Former Auburn receiver Sammie Coates didn’t match up with Marshall at all Tuesday. Coates worries that if Marshall does cover him at practice, Coates will spend most of his route laughing at the absurdity of it all. “It’s going to feel so weird,” Coates said. “He was my quarterback. It looks weird already seeing him across from me at corner.”