Thinking back to Nick Marshall’s arrival at Auburn last summer, Coates recalled the quarterback didn’t know a single aspect of the Tigers’ multi-faceted, hurry-up, no-huddle scheme. Fewer than six months later, as Auburn prepares in Southern California for Monday night's BCS Championship Game, Marshall has morphed into one of the team’s harshest critics, always searching for more. It’s unlike anything Coates has ever seen.
Teammates can’t help but respect it.
“’That win wasn’t good enough,’” Coates said of Marshall’s mentality. “He always brings that to the table. He always shows us that he’s got more in him. When you see a quarterback pushing that hard and bringing more out, we’ve got to bring more out to (match him).”
It’s a mind-set Marshall not only takes into every game, but it extends to every second he’s on the field.
And at times, he acknowledged, it’s to his detriment.
“I just try to make a play every time, but it's not good to try to make a play every time,” he said. “Sometimes you should probably just throw the ball away and live the next down to play the next play.”
When mistakes happen, Marshall is taken to task, much as any other quarterback would be. That’s not the only thing Marshall hears when he returns to the sideline, however. The junior said Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee have mastered doling out praise and criticism in equal measure.
As Marshall puts it, Malzahn and Lashlee’s advice is simply to “play ball.”
“If I mess up, just put that play behind me and just worry about the next one,” he said. “So I just put that in the back of my head. … I just started playing my ball and not worrying about anything.”
The words “concern” or “worry” haven’t entered Marshall’s vocabulary since preseason camp. Marshall said in the midst of a four-way battle for the starting job, the first two weeks were a struggle.
He was running unfamiliar plays in an unfamiliar place.
“It wasn't something I was used to. … In high school we ran the spread,” he said. "But as I got here, they sat me down and taught me how the offense worked and (I) studied on film and watched what we do. It went from there and I got better as the weeks went.”
Malzahn couldn’t agree more. With each passing day, he has seen Marshall’s knowledge of the playbook expand accordingly. Specifically, Marshall’s mastery of the read-option has grown to the point that opponents have to account for him every bit as much as teammate (and Heisman finalist) Tre Mason.
Not that any of Marshall’s success running the ball — as his 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns attest — surprises Malzahn.
“When we signed him, we knew he was a good athlete. We had to transition that over to the quarterback position,” the coach said. “I think you can see that once he gets out into space and in one-on-one situations, he is extremely hard to tackle. He is very tough. He has really impressed us this year.”
Marshall’s passing hasn’t garnered quite as much attention. Still, he has shown he can make plays with his arm when needed. Coates aside, Marshall has also developed a connection with C.J. Uzomah. The tight end has only nine receptions this season, but he has made them count, as three have been for touchdowns.
One of those, of course, was the game-winning grab he made against Mississippi State with 10 seconds remaining, helping Auburn come away with a 24-20 victory.
Uzomah said it would be a mistake to focus solely on the 11-yard scoring toss as the first example of Marshall’s calm under pressure.
To him, the entire game was a sign of things to come.
“Driving us down on that two-minute drive, and not only using his arm but using his legs on a crucial third-down and getting me in a position to make a play in the end zone — I think that game in itself was a staple of his growth and what he was capable of doing,” Uzomah said. “So I think that (me being a) safety valve helped him out a little bit, but that was mainly him being mature and growing up.”
Marshall, ever the perfectionist, isn’t satisfied with his improvement. Yes, he has made tremendous strides since joining the Tigers. But it’s still not enough.
If there’s a way Marshall can squeeze more production out of himself, he’s going to find it.
“You can't get caught up on the good plays you’ve made,” he said. “You go back to practice and get better.”