Ex-GCCC star Marshall earns start at Auburn.
By J. LEVI BURNFIN
It took one half of a game, but former Garden City Community College football player Nick Marshall has become comfortable at the Division I level.
After one year quarterbacking the Busters, Marshall transferred to Auburn (Ala.) University in hopes of working with first-year head coach Guz Malzahn and help rebuild a program that was a national champion with Malzahn steering the offense only three years ago.
To do so, Marshall had to win a four-player battle in camp to even get a chance as a junior. He earned that opportunity and was named the starter just a week before the Tigers' first game against Washington State.
"I was excited when I found out, but I just wanted to stay humble because I didn't want to get overwhelmed," Marshall said in a telephone interview.
It's easy to understand why it could have been overwhelming. Following a perfect season and the dream national title run under Gene Chizik and Cam Newton in 2010 — another junior college transfer — the Tigers had taken a precipitous fall from 14-0 to 8-5 in 2011 and 3-9 in 2012. No coach had ever been fired only two seasons removed from winning a national title but that's how bad the program had fallen. Chizik was out and Malzahn was in after one season at Arkansas State.
Cue Marshall, who comes in to lead Auburn — a team just three hours from arch nemesis and the only other title winner in the last four years, Alabama. The pressure is there for a quick turnaround. That might have been a factor in Marshall's play early against Washington State in the season opener.
He was sacked in his first dropback play, and his first four passes all fell incomplete. He said nerves definitely played a part. Marshall finished the first half with only two completions in eight attempts and had four rushes for 11 yards, a far cry from the other-worldly numbers he accumulated the year before at Garden City. And it wasn't what Malzahn was expecting from his quarterback, either.
According to Marshall, Malzahn told him at halftime to calm down, focus on football and just play. He did.
"I got comfortable and I just played after that," Marshall said.
He completed 8-of-11 passes in the second half for 79 yards and ran for 16 more yards as the Tigers won 31-24. He never got to the endzone but he didn't turn the ball over, either, something that was a problem for him at the junior college level.
Still, the quarterback who tries to pattern his game after former Baylor Bear and Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III had work to do.
He wants to become one of the best in the SEC, a conference currently filled with outstanding talent at the position, including last year's Heisman winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, and starting quarterback for the Crimson Tide in the last two title runs, A.J. McCarron. The third QB star in the SEC is Aaron Murray of Georgia, who may be the best NFL prospect of the lot.
Marshall welcomes the challenge, knowing that while national expectations are lower, his expectations will always remain high.
"I'm surrounded by good teammates," he said, noting he has the skills, drive and weapons to make a splash this season.
That was evident in the Tigers' second game of the season on Saturday — even against a lesser opponent in Arkansas State.
Marshall went to the air sparingly as the Tigers rushed for more than 300 yards, and he completed 10-of-17 for 147 yards and two scores. He also ran for another 53 yards.
It was a semi-breakout for the junior, leading Auburn to a 38-9 rout over Malzahn's former squad.
Marshall will naturally be judged by his performance against SEC schools, especially 'Bama. But then again, it was a 52-26 romp over Arkansas State that kicked off Newton's Heisman and title campaign.
Auburn's first conference game is Saturday against Mississippi State at Auburn. On Sept. 21, Marshall will get his first road test as he heads into Death Valley to take on No. 8 Louisiana State in Baton Rouge.