At Auburn, the Marshall plan is paying dividends

The rehabilitation of Nick Marshall’s career started with a rushed exchange.

Pulling his truck onto the shoulder in February 2012, Wilcox (Ga.) County coach Mark Ledford and his former star quarterback hefted bags out of the bed. Nearby, Jeff Tatum and a van from Garden City Community College waited with a 978-mile ride to western Kansas ahead of them.

Three days earlier, Marshall had been dismissed after allegedly taking money from a teammate’s dorm room at the University of Georgia, where he had seen scant time as a freshman cornerback. On Feb. 5, he settled on Garden City and a planned meeting in Birmingham, Ala., arranged for the next day. Until Tatum fell behind schedule.

So on came improvisation at the shoulder of Exit 61 outside of Jasper, Ala., a town of 14,000 on U.S. Route 78.

“Within 20 minutes, they were heading west,” Ledford said. “By the time they were passing through Tupelo, he was registered for classes.”

The plan hit its crescendo last week after Marshall lofted an 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds left to lift Auburn (3-0), which visits No. 6 LSU (3-0) on Saturday, to a victory over Mississippi State — a trek that involved a position switch, four schools in as many seasons and a five-man derby on the Plains for the starting job.

“I believe in stories of redemption and guys turning it around,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said Wednesday. “Sometimes it happens at another school, and that’s fine with me.

“I realize that those kind of comeback stories happen, and I’m real happy for these guys.”

It’s easiest to start with the compromise that came before the odyssey.

At Wilcox, Marshall, who is 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, was a two-sport star, averaging 27.3 points as a senior in basketball after throwing for 2,956 yards and 32 touchdowns — on his way to a state record 103 for his career — as a senior on the gridiron. Marshall, whom rivals rated the No. 9 dual-threat quarterback prospect, brought up the idea of switching to cornerback, which he also played at the Class A school. The move potentially would make balancing the demands of basketball easier.

Arriving in Athens, Marshall faced the task of mastering a new position in a complex scheme masterminded by defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, seeing action on special teams and amassing only five tackles. Details are murky, but Marshall, whom Auburn did not make available for an interview, reportedly was present when the dorm-room theft took place, and he was booted from the team.

Barely 24 hours later, Ledford’s phone buzzed with interested Football Championship Subdivision programs and junior colleges. Marshall made it clear he wanted to play quarterback — and do so in the conference from which he had been temporarily exiled.

“He knew with the things he could do that he wanted an opportunity to prove himself at the highest level,” Ledford said. “If he didn’t do that, he felt he would have been wasting his talent.”

Being tagged a dual-threat quarterback was a bit of misnomer: Ledford had never used Marshall as a running threat until the player’s junior season, and he kept all of two running plays on his call sheet: one out of the shotgun and one out of the “I” formation.

“He was one that never took his eyes off (of receivers) downfield,” Ledford said. “He may pull it down and get the first down, but he still was more of a passer.”

So how did Garden City, in the desolate plains of western Kansas, become home to his rebirth?

Tatum was in his first season coaching the Broncbusters, but he had spent eight seasons as offensive coordinator at Georgia Military College and had recruited players from Wilcox, including Marshall’s cousin. The remote location and long distance was part of the plan.

Marshall’s transition back to his natural position was quick. Five days into spring practice, Tatum tested his new pupil. With only a rudimentary knowledge of the offense, Marshall faced a 10-minute blitz period to determine his grasp of check-downs and hot routes.

“He hit the right guy every time,” Tatum said. “He has that natural football instinct.”

Instead of frustrating receivers by scampering after a quick run through his progressions, Marshall threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns with a 57.1 percent completion rate. He also rushed for 949 yards and 18 scores.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn had been trying to lure Marshall to Arkansas State, where he was in his one and only season, but the Sun Belt Conference program wasn’t quite what he envisioned. Once Malzahn, who was Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2008-11, took the Tigers’ head job, Marshall was in the fold.

Yet Marshall didn’t arrive on campus until June. What unfolded in fall camp was a clandestine four-man quarterback derby that lasted until two weeks before the season opener, when Auburn announced the job belonged to Marshall.

“We were putting in our offense at the time and went back to the plays he felt most comfortable with,” the ever-coy Malzahn said Wednesday.

Not that Auburn leaned heavily on Marshall early. In the season’s first two games, he threw just 36 passes while the ground game pounded out 596 yards and more than 6 yards per carry. That changed last week against Mississippi State, when Marshall threw for 339 yards on 67.6 percent passing.

Marshall was brilliant on the final drive, with Auburn trailing 20-17 and 1:56 showing on the clock at Jordan-Hare Stadium, completing his first five passes for 55 yards and scrambling 11 yards before his key throw to Uzomah.

“When we made Nick the starter, that’s something he had done very well — the two-minute drive,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said.

Lashlee said the traits that helped Marshall win the job have been evident on the field.

“We felt him and the team would be on the same parallel in that they’d get better each week,” he said. “We knew we weren’t ready at that moment and felt we would keep improving.”

And what is Marshall’s reward? Saturday night in Death Valley for his first SEC road game.

“With what he’s faced,” Tatum said, “I think he won’t be fazed.”