AUBURN –Nick Marshall has been the pioneer of Gus Malzahn quarterbacks.
The Auburn signal caller was the first to go into a season without benefit of spring practice to help him learn the offense months before. Though, it did not deter Marshall from helping lead the Tigers to the BCS National Championship game.
Now Marshall has gone through a developmental spring practice, which allowed him to work on his footwork and mechanics without having to worry about game planning.
“(Spring) benefited me a lot because I got better at the things I was bad in last year,” said Marshall, who spent down time working with his wide receivers individually in order to form a “bond” and not “miss a beat” once the fall arrives.
Marshall will be the first quarterback to return for a second season under Malzahn in what will be his ninth year coaching at the college level, and the offensive innovator is understandably excited about the future. Malzahn felt Marshall was a Heisman Trophy contender late last season and maintains his conviction now.
“He ended the season last year as one of the better players (in college football) and we expect him to even be better next year,” Malzahn said.
While Marshall draws natural comparisons to Cam Newton for his dual-threat capabilities, the most analogous quarterback to Marshall is actually Ryan Aplin, who played for Malzahn at Arkansas State in 2012.
Aplin started two seasons for the Red Wolves under Hugh Freeze, who was ASU’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and head coach in 2011, and ran a very similar offense to Malzahn’s Hurry-Up, No-Huddle.
Learning the language was the toughest aspect of transitioning to Malzahn’s offense for Aplin, but after he mastered that the results on the field were drastically improved.
In his season under Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, Aplin completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,342 yards with 24 touchdowns and four interceptions and took just 15 sacks. Aplin was more accurate (63.9 percent), with more touchdowns (19), fewer interceptions (16) and fewer sacks (27) than his junior season.
“The biggest thing for me was not forcing stuff; taking stuff when it’s there, when it’s not there, throw it away,” Aplin said. “It was more of me being smart, and coach drills it every day at practice. It was kind of a pride thing in practice. Coach Lashlee and coach Malzahn were huge on turnover ratio.”
The hope of Malzahn and Lashlee is for Marshall, who threw for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns with six interceptions and added 1,068 rushing yards and 12 scores last season, to follow in the same path of Aplin’s success on the field and off.
Aplin helped Malzahn and Lashlee game plan each week, something they hope to see from Marshall in the fall.
“You hope that would be the maturation process,” Lashlee said. “It came to the point where Ryan was in there on Mondays helping with the game plans almost. ‘Hey, coach, here’s what I see. Yeah, I like this.’ As a coach, you want to do what your quarterback feels good about.
“I think Nick will, hopefully, be to that point. He’s already to that point. He sometimes knows what we’re thinking before we think it. That’s the progression I want to get to.”
Those Monday sessions, part film study and part chalk talk, were very important to Aplin’s development, allowing him to pick up on opponent’s tendencies and nuances. It also allowed for a back-and-forth to express what plays he felt comfortable with.
“I think that made it easy on a quarterback when you have somebody trusting you that much and giving you a lot of leeway,” said Aplin, now an intern under Freeze at Ole Miss. “I think the biggest thing was to be able to have as many people as possible watch the same game. You’re going to see the same thing but each person looks at games different. I think we all saw different things. To be able to sit there and listen to them … it helped me out to be able to see – when this guy has his hand down, they’re going to zone blitz from here – little things that improved my game.”
Though Marshall has not had such sessions yet, Malzahn believes the fall will allow for a lot more time off the field with his first returning starting quarterback.
“There was times last year that he just had to concentrate on himself and making sure he had himself ready,” Malzahn said. “I really believe this next year the big picture – making sure the pieces to the puzzle are around to where he needs them to be – it just comes with experience and I think he’ll be able to do that.”
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn believes Nick Marshall will take an active role in game planning in 2014 just as Ryan Aplin did at Arkansas State in 2012. James Crepea/Montgomery Advertiser
Auburn wide receiver Quan Bray, who said Marshall is an “NFL-caliber quarterback,” has noticed a deeper understanding of the offense from the Tigers signal caller this spring.
It certainly showed at times during the A-Day game, when Marshall threw for 236 yards and four touchdowns to earn Offensive MVP honors.
“He’s to the point now where everything is clicking,” Bray said. “He knows the offense. There’s not that many busts. He’s throwing the ball where he’s supposed to and making the right reads.”
Lashlee pegged a goal for Marshall’s completion percentage to be at 65 percent at the end of spring and said it went up over the 15 practices. Marshall was 13-for-22 (59.1 percent) on A-Day, in line with his 59.4 percent from last season, though the spring game was a very limited sample.
The goals and expectations are different now for Marshall, who is the most efficient returning quarterback in the SEC. He even set the bar after A-Day by saying the Tigers offense can be “real scary” in 2014.
Auburn’s coaches don’t want to be unrealistic in their outlook, but when the goal is to get back to the national title game, pressure is unavoidable.
“I just want him to be the best he can be,” Lashlee said. “If he’s the best he can be, that’ll be pretty dang good.”