*Courtesy Auburn Media Relations*
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – It was late June, and Auburn’s wide receivers were getting ready to leave after a workout in the indoor practice facility. Defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker was there, too, when junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall, who had just arrived on campus, walked in.
Whitaker, who has sat out the season after knee surgery, tells the story:
“Most of the receivers were finished,” Whitaker said. “They were taking their shoes off. Nick comes in, wearing just regular clothes, and throws a couple of passes. The wide receivers watched him, and they put their shoes back on and went back to catch some of his passes.”
And so it began.
Marshall, who started his college career as a cornerback at Georgia, came from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, became Auburn’s starting quarterback and has directed an offense that has propelled the Tigers into their biggest game since the BCS Championship in January 2011.
The No. 4 Tigers (10-1, 6-1) and No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0) will meet in the Iron Bowl on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The winner will move on to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game with the BCS Championship Game in sight.
Marshall has completed 108-of-185 passes for 1,530 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s rushed for 823 yards on 123 carries and nine touchdowns. He’s directed three game-winning drives in the final minutes of fourth quarters.
Center Reese Dismukes says Marshall has been crucial in Auburn’s spectacular comeback from last season’s 3-9 record.
“He is the catalyst, honestly,” Dismukes said. “It is definitely a team effort, but he has definitely helped bring that athleticism back to the quarterback position. That’s what makes this offense such a weapon. He has produced, especially at pivotal times. … He’s definitely been what we needed.”
Only junior tailback Tre Mason, with 1,153 yards, has run for more yards than Marshall. He says Marshall has won the respect and the trust of his teammates.
“On the field and off the field he is a leader,” Mason said. “That doesn’t change. He is funny off the field. He’s cool. When we get on the field, he’s strictly business. We have figure out a way to execute our offense, and that starts with him. We’re locked in during practice and he’s locked in. He’s getting everybody ready and fired up.”
Senior defensive end Dee Ford says the first hurdle he had to overcome with Marshall was understanding what he said. But when he saw him throw, he knew Auburn’s quarterback had arrived.
“I remember Nick when he first came in,” Ford said. “He’s never up and he’s never down. He’s very calm, country. My first conversation with him he had to repeat a few sentences. He was so country.”
Ford and Whitaker reached out to Marshall shortly after he arrived on campus.
“We knew when he we saw him throw the ball he was going to be our quarterback, so we wanted to make everything comfortable for him,” Ford said. “He handled everything well. He didn’t force it. He naturally became a leader and kind of took everything one week at a time with the workouts. … He made a great transition, especially as a quarterback.”
Marshall made a resounding statement in the third game when he took the Tigers, trailing 20-17, 88 yards without a timeout in the final 1:56. His 11-yard pass to C.J. Uzomah was the game-winner. Four weeks later, he led a 75-yard drive for the winning touchdown against Texas A&M. On Nov. 16 against Georgia, his tipped 77-yard pass to Ricardo Louis was the game-winner.
On Saturday, Marshall will face the biggest test of his football career. Alabama’s mighty defense has given up more than one touchdown in a game just twice all season and once in the last nine games.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn says Marshall has the confidence of Auburn coaches and his teammates.
“Our players have a lot of respect for him,” Malzahn said. “He doesn’t get too high or too low, but he’s got that air about him. They really believe in him, even in pressure situations. They believe he’s going to make a play.”