When Nick Marshall was a freshman defensive back at Georgia in 2011, some of his teammates realized he’d be happier — and perhaps better — as a quarterback.
“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” said Georgia defensive back Damian Swann, Marshall’s former roommate. “Freshman year, we saw it every day in practice, the way he’d stand there and throw the ball 80 yards flat-footed. … We always knew he wanted to be a quarterback.”
Marshall will play in Sanford Stadium on Saturday night for the first time since Nov. 19, 2011, when he recorded one tackle as a backup cornerback in a Georgia victory over Kentucky. Three years later, he will reappear between the hedges as Auburn’s starting quarterback.
Much has happened in the interim — Marshall’s dismissal from the Georgia program in February 2012 for his role in the theft of money from a teammate’s dorm room, his 2012 season as quarterback for a Kansas junior college, his 2013 return to the SEC as the starting quarterback for an Auburn team that won the SEC championship and played for the national title.
“I’m proud of all the things he has accomplished,” Swann said. “I’m proud of him being able to get another opportunity and make the best of it.”
The incident that ended Marshall’s time at Georgia doesn’t seem to be how his former program defines him.
“Here’s what I think,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Guys from 18 to 22 are at a very crucial time in their life, and sometimes they make mistakes. And when they make those mistakes during their college years, I am excited when a guy can turn it around and … move in a positive direction after a bad choice, you know.
“I’m happy for the guy. I’m not happy we’ve got to try to defend him.”
Marshall entered Georgia with the much-hyped 2011 “Dream Team” recruiting class. He had played quarterback at Wilcox County High in south Georgia but signed with UGA as a cornerback, a position he thought might be his best ticket to the NFL and also afford him time to play college basketball.
After being kicked off Georgia’s team, Marshall reconsidered his choice of position and sought an opportunity to play quarterback — first at Garden City (Kansas) Community College and then at Auburn.
His former teammates saw it coming, as in this scene from warmups before the 2011 Georgia-Florida game:
“He was out there messing around, and he threw the ball, no kidding, 80 yards in the air,” Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason recalled. “It was one of those things where the ball was in the air, and everybody was, like, ‘Whoa.’ I was kind of jealous. … I was, like, ‘Man, if we’ve ever got to throw a Hail Mary, I’ll probably be coming out.’
“The guy has a super special arm. That is so much God-given. It’s freaky. You saw how far he threw the ball last year at the end of the game.”
With 36 seconds left in last year’s Georgia-Auburn game at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, the Bulldogs led 38-37 and the Tigers faced fourth-and-18 from their 27-yard line. Marshall dropped back and fired the ball almost 60 yards in the air. Two UGA safeties botched the play, and the ball wound up in the arms of an Auburn receiver for an inexplicable touchdown that gave the Tigers a 43-38 win.
Despite his strong arm and the highest pass efficiency rating in SEC games this season, Marshall is better known for his legs.
In 22 career games for Auburn, he has 3,552 passing yards and 1,766 rushing yards. He has thrown for 28 touchdowns and run for 23. He has eight 100-yard rushing games. He is one of four quarterbacks in SEC history with a 1,000-yard rushing season (1,068 last year).
“A lot of people talk about guys being a dual threat,” Richt said, “but he … truly is as dangerous a runner as he is a passer.”
“I think he found himself in a system,” Swann said, “where everything he does, everything he can do, fits.”
“His skills will definitely be a challenge to contain,” Georgia nose guard Mike Thornton said, “but with the right defense, which our coaches are pulling together, I think we’ll be fine.”
Auburn hasn’t made Marshall available for interviews this week, but coach Gus Malzahn insists the return to Athens isn’t momentous for the former Bulldog.
“Last year there was no doubt (playing against Georgia) was definitely different for him,” Malzahn said. “But any time you have that experience one time, it’s not as big a deal the second time. So he’s going to prepare like he normally would, and there’s not going to be any more to it than that.”
Richt was asked if he would have believed, back in 2011, Marshall could do what he’s doing as a quarterback.
“He’s playing quarterback as well as anybody in the league and probably in the country, no doubt about that. We certainly looked at him as that possibility,” Richt said. “But we believed he could be one of the best cornerbacks in America. We believed he could be a very high draft pick as a corner as well. He’s just that talented of a guy.”
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.