Earlier this week, Bleacher Report’s Barrett Sallee made Bold Predictions for each SEC team. When choosing a surprising outcome for Auburn, the writer singled out Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall and gave him a nice round number to shoot for this season: 3,000 passing yards.
Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it likely? It’s hard to say.
Last season, Marshall threw for 1,976 yards in 13 total games and the results were mixed. He started slowly and completed 10 of 19 passes for only 99 yards in the season opener against Washington State. The following week, Marshall was a slightly better 10-for-17 against Arkansas State, which was good for 147 passing yards and his first two touchdowns as a Tiger.
Having won the starting quarterback in fall camp, and needing time to adjust to head coach Gus Malzahn’s offensive system, it is understandable that Marshall would start slow. He put things together in week three, and had his best passing performance of the year against Mississippi State.
Marshall completed a season high 23 of 34 passes for 339 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions against the Bulldogs. He also led the Tigers to their first of several nail-biting victories, completing the game-winning touchdown pass to CJ Uzomah with ten seconds left on the clock.
However, the following week in Baton Rouge, Marshall – and the rest of the Auburn Tigers – struggled in a 35-21 loss to LSU. Marshall attempted 33 passes against the Bayou Bengals, but completed just 17 of them and was picked off twice.
That performance helped lead to the coaching staff’s decision to shift the offensive focus during the subsequent bye week. When the Tigers took the field against Ole Miss on October 5, Auburn would begin a magical run of victories that centered on the team’s ability to run the football.
After attempting 103 passes in his first four games, Marshall threw just 136 the rest of the season. When Marshall did pass, he was effective, completing over 60% with ten touchdowns and only two interceptions. He battled through injuries, which caused Marshall to miss the entire game against Western Carolina, and forced him to sit the majority of the matchup with Florida Atlantic.
Yet, for the rest of the year, the Tigers relied more on Marshall’s running ability – along with that of Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason – to make it to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, and ultimately the BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers, with Marshall pulling the strings behind center, were one of the most impressive offenses in the nation.
Looking back, it is pretty easy to see that the Auburn offense was at its best when Marshall was handing off to Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant or keeping it himself. Of course, that tremendous rushing attack – which led the nation in yards per game – opened up big play possibilities in the passing game as well. So many big play possibilities, in fact, that Sammie Coates led the nation with 21.5 yards per catch.
This year, the Auburn coaching staff has been adamant that Marshall and the Tigers will throw the ball more. Reports from coaches, players and observers from the spring and fall indicate that Marshall has become a better passer since the team took the field in Pasadena. He will also have more weapons to use.
The biggest offensive acquisition in the most recent recruiting class was junior college transfer D’haquille Williams, a 6-foot-2, 216-pound junior that has already made a name for himself as a playmaker. He will team with Coates to provide the Tigers with one of the best wide receiver duos in the Southeastern Conference.
Not only did the team add Williams to the mix, but the Tigers also did not lose a major pass catching threat. In all, the top four receivers – Coates, Ricardo Louis, Marcus Davis, and Quan Bray – all return, as well as seven of the top eight (Tre Mason being the lone defection). Uzomah is back at tight end, and will pair with Brandon Fulse for a nice one-two punch at the position.
Simply put, the Auburn receiving corps is stacked.
Plus, there is history on Marshall’s side. When Gus Malzahn wants to throw the ball a lot – that is, when the team he coaches has personnel for which passing is best suited, they let it rip. Several of Malzahn’s high school teams put up big numbers through the air, but he’s done it in college too.
In 2007, Malzahn’s first season as the offensive coordinator at Tulsa, Paul Smith threw for 5,065 yards and 47 touchdowns – and had 300 passing yards in 14 consecutive games. The following season, new starter David Johnson had 4,059 passing yards and 46 touchdown passes.
At Arkansas State in 2012, Malzahn was a collegiate head coach for the first time. His quarterback, Ryan Aplin, who is now a graduate assistant at Auburn, put the ball in the air more than 400 times and accumulated 3,342 passing yards and 24 scoring strikes.
So, a quarterback throwing for 3,000 yards has been done with Malzahn calling the plays. The only issue? Every year Malzahn has been associated with Auburn (or in the SEC, as he was with Arkansas in 2006) – either as the offensive coordinator or head coach – no Malzahn coached quarterback has hit the mark.
But, one interesting thing about 2014 is that Nick Marshall has a chance to quarterback the Tigers for the second consecutive season. No starting quarterback has done that for Malzahn as a college coach. Marshall will be better prepared to handle SEC defenses in his second year in the system, and as we’ve already mentioned, he’s worked hard to improve his passing ability.
But will Marshall throw for 3,000 yards in 2014?
He’ll have to stay healthy, which can be difficult for a quarterback that runs as much as Marshall does – perhaps that helps explain why the coaches want to throw more. But, if the Auburn offensive machine can move at the pace Malzahn desires, and the Tigers continue to implement a strong running game with play-action, as well as a combination of drop back and quick passes – it can be done.
It’s a bold prediction, but Nick Marshall can reach it.