Thursday, June 26, 2014

Marshall: From Improbable to Unstoppable

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Marshall: From Improbable to Unstoppable 

It was just another blip on my news feed when word rolled in that 3 more players had been let go from THUGA....or, the University of Georgia as many refer to it. A kid named Marshall who had been a true freshman starter on a pretty good defense had managed to do something wrong and get sent home. I did cringe a little when I realized that it was another kid whose life was probably ruined by some petty act, but the University's these days didn't play around. They didn't really care who you were. If you brought any sort of negative attention to the program, you were gone. It didn't matter that you had set essentially every record for a high school QB in your home state of Georgia. It didn't matter that you were a 4-Star athlete. It didn't matter that you had so much pure talent that you could win a starting job as a corner in your true freshman season. You screw up, on any level, and you are gone. But ultimately, he wasn't one my team and I had no idea who he was. So, who cares.

Life went on.

But in the days leading up to National Signing Day, many Auburn forums were buzzing about the prospect of a JUCO QB. Curious, I started looking into what everyone was so excited about. This kid from the JUCO ranks had flashed some unbelievable moves week in and week out. Everyone was raving about these insane moves and blazing speed. But, I had seen that before. There are a lot of really fast football players with great moves out there, and while they can win games against inferior competition, playing QB in the SEC is a whole different animal. Just think, being blazing fast isn't unique. Guys like Clowney can run 4.5s off the edge. I was more interested in his stats, initially. And the stats said that he threw almost as many INTs as he did TDs. And, he put the ball on the dirt....a lot.

But, I was intrigued, so I watched the highlights. Indeed, he did have some sick moves. He could scramble. He made guys miss. And, he fumbled. He made some bad throws. But, he also had a cannon of an arm, as he demonstrated in one highlight where he threw a TD pass 70 yards. I don't mean the kid caught it and ran it in. I mean, he threw the ball 70 yards and hit his receiver. That certainly raised an eyebrow. I did admit that the defense that many fans had was certainly pertinent. He was forced to play from behind in essentially every game, forcing him to take the game on his shoulders. As valid of an excuse as it was, I didn't buy it. Throwing pics and fumbling is inexcusable. The other thing I kept thinking was, if that Malzahn wanted him, and that should be just cause for us to get on board. After all, Malzahn had already taken two transfers and made winners of them at Auburn.

But I was skeptical. I think you can tell in my QB Breakdown. Wallace hadn't been TERRIBLE in his starts the previous year. He certainly hadn't gotten help. And, Jeremy Johnson was coming in, whom had been penciled in as The Future. While Frazier and Wallace battled it out during the spring, I couldn't help but think that two former starters had a HUGE and possibly insurmountable edge on Johnson and Marshall. But, when A-Day 2013 wrapped up, none of us were impressed with the two QBs we saw play. And suddenly it was imperative that one of the two latter QBs needed to come in and do the impossible: learn a Malzhan offense, win the job, and manage to NOT LOSE games....and do it in weeks. Not months.

Of course, the Bammers lined up, just as they had when Cam had come onto the scene, to point and laugh. And while they had their own renditions of how to explain it, the fact was, Auburn was a 2nd Chance school. Since Brandon Cox had left the Plains had been transfers, almost half the games had been started to transfers. And, of all the QBs since Cox, most of the winning had been done BY transfers including a National Championship. I admit that there were times that I felt like Auburn had become Mercenary U. If you screw up, no problem. We will take you in. I wasn't too sure how I felt about that.

While most fans were wildly anticipating Marshall's ability, I quietly had a lot of reservations. What did that say about our chances of winning if we had 4 other QBs on the roster who would get sat for a kid that played cornerback at one of our most hated opponents? Especially considering  that he had a month to learn the offense that they had years to learn.

Into fall ball we went, and the word coming out of camp said that this Marshall kid was unreal when he scrambled and he could spin the ball. The QB play at Auburn in 2011 and 2012 had been beyond sub-par, and they had been players that had been recruited and trained by Malzahn for at least a year.  Just days later, word comes out that Nick Marshall would be the next starting QB for Auburn.

But, in Malzahn we trusted. #14 took the field as an Auburn Tiger, 87,451 screaming fans waiting to see the next Cam Newton. I can only imagine the level and weight of the expectations that he must have felt. I doubt he ever considered himself another #2, but I know he felt like that's who he was expected to be, unfairly or not.

Auburn escaped Washington State with some critical defensive plays, notably by Robenson Therezie. Marshall has as pedestrian a day as I had ever seen in a winning QB at Auburn, going 10/19 for 99 yards and zero TDs while picking up another 27 yards on 9 carries. It wasn't the numbers that Cam had put up. Message boards and social media seemed to tune up to that line of thinking. Cam had completed the same amount of throws, but to the tune of 186 yards and 3 TDs while rushing for 171 and 2 TDs in his first start. Cam had gone from a JUCO transfer to a Heisman contender in 60 minutes. Marshall just looked to have survived to fight another day. May fans, including myself, figured we would be settling into another long season. He may not be a Cam, but at least he could make life interesting, which was a far cry from the offense we had seen in 2012.

Even at the time, I wondered if Marshall, alone with his thoughts, considered the comparison. I certainly envisioned him sitting in his room with his head in his hands. The shine of the second chance slightly tarnished. I could see him thinking "this isn't as easy as I thought it would be." He hadn't taken Jordan-Hare by storm. In fact, his performance had been fairly pitiful, specifically missing at least 2 wide open receivers on critical plays. Suddenly, people who were so excited to see what he could do suddenly doubted if this was the right direction. While I expected him to be down on himself, he almost certainly looked at the challenge and the expectations and the criticisms and it fueled him.

But, he wasn't Cam and he never would be. I'm sure he knew that all along, despite the heavy expectations to conform to that image that he must have felt. He isn't 6'6" 250. He doesn't have that long stride.  He wasn't one of the most coveted prospects in the nation coming out of high school. He didn't "come out the womb" to ready play quarterback in the NFL. And while we all envisioned another QB like Cam that would run people over, hit the open field and make 5 yard strides, or deliver that absolute rocket of a ball as Cam did, that wasn't Marshall.  

Marshall had to do something that Cam never had to do while at Auburn. He had to face his video the next day. He had to look at a pretty dreadful performance and realize that it wasn't going to work. He had to make improvements. Drastic improvements. And he had to do it quick.

7 days later, he threw for 147 yards and 2 TDs while running for 53 more yards against an inferior Arkansas State defense.

And again, he had to go back to the film room. It wasn't good enough against SEC competition. He made improvements. He went to work, just like the Auburn Creed.

It was that week that things started to look different. Against Mississippi State, Marshall threw for 339 yards and 2 TDs with 2 INTs (one was a hail mary). He only ran for a few yards, but he astounded fans in the first quarter when he fumbled a shotgun snap, scooped it, and found a streaking Bray down the sideline for a TD. Sloppy? Absolutely. Brilliant? Absolutely. Improbable? Absolutely.

And when the game stalled and State pulled ahead with 2 minutes left, I had all but conceded the loss. That was tough, since I was at the game with some State fans. And this guy, despite the rough starts in the first two games, did something completely improbable. A guy who had looked like a shaky passer, at best,  calmly orchestrated one of the most brilliant 2 minute drills I have ever seen, culminating in as perfect a back shoulder pass to Uzomah. Amazing. A guy who had been missing wide open crossing routes connects on the hardest pass you can make in an absolute pressure cooker of a situation.

Improbable. But that's what he was.

The following week went down almost exactly as we all thought it would. Auburn couldn't escape Death Valley against the #6 team in the land. Despite making several critical mistakes that ultimately spelled defeat, Marshall and the Auburn offense did something that we hadn't seen in a long time. Despite being down 21 points at half time, the offense continued to fight, putting up 21 2nd half points. Was it enough. No. But it made every Auburn fan a believer in what he and the Auburn Tigers stood for, which had been missing in previous years: toughness.

Again, Marshall had to do something that Cam never did at Auburn. He had to lose and deal with a loss. He had to take the burden of a loss, already heavy with the expectations of a fan base hungry for improvement. But it was the defining game for Marshall and the Auburn offense. It marked the kick off point of the most dominating and improbable offenses in the history of college football. It was the development of the most formidable rushing attack we have ever witnessed. While Auburn, known as Runningback U, has one of the most storied legacies of rushers, it hasn't witnessed an option based rushing attack that Marshall would command for the 2nd half of the season. While Trey Mason stole the spotlight for the year, leading to his drafting into the NFL, it was truly Marshall who struck fear into defenses.

2 weeks after his first loss, Marshall exploded onto the Rebels as he ran for 140 yards and 2 TDs while throwing for another 93 against a good Ole Miss defense. And for the rest of the season, he went into "kill mode".  He threw when he had to. He ran when he had to. Yards and TDs piled up in a most improbable fashion. Take the UT game, for example. Marshall completed 3/7 passes in a 55-23 win. The offense had started the year as a balanced attack, shaky, and frequently unpredictable and evolved into the most predictable and dominating offenses of our time.

While the season closed with a heart-breaking loss to FSU, one couldn't help but notice the amazing development of the young man wearing #14. Just in the month between the Iron Bowl and the National Championship, the growth of his game was evident.

What an amazing journey it has been for Marshall. A Georgia Bulldog true freshman at corner one year, to a community college phenom, to the Plains as a starting quarterback who orchestrated some of the most mind blowing and incredible plays in an unforgettable season. As a fan, it has been a humbling experience to have judged someone's character and ability so willingly only to have him blossom into such a fantastic player who becomes a leader of men.  It's just as easy to point at a kids decision and label him a troublemaker as it is to watch a kid play and say he won't amount to a winner. Perhaps what makes him one of my favorite players is that his willingness to compete and win, despite the expectations and odds. Just when he looks to be out of it. Just when things look impossible, Marshall confounds the odds in such a spectacular and improbable fashion. If there were ever a player that you shouldn't tell what they can't do, Marshall is it.  He took what could have been a career ending situation at UGA as a corner and turned into a preseason Heisman contender at Auburn as a quarterback.

2nd chances aren't for everyone. Some people never get them and some people squander them. And some people take the opportunities that are given to them and turn them into something beautiful, amazing, and improbable. No one could ever have imagined such an improbable series of events.While we all grew with him and healed together during the 2013 season, it is easy to look at 2014 and the potential greatness and to lose sight of just how special and improbable 2013 really was. It wouldn't have been so without Nick Marshall, the most improbable starting QB to wear the AU on his helmet.