HOOVER, Ala. — "My first thought was, ‘I need to get a suit as soon as possible,’" a smiling C.J. Uzomah said. "So I called my mom."
Sunday night, the Auburn tight end received word that he would be attending Monday’s opening session of the SEC Media Days, filling in for quarterback Nick Marshall, who was pulled following a citation for possession of marijuana.
Clad in a navy jacket, light blue shirt and Tigers orange-and-white striped tie, Uzomah joked his inclusion didn’t mean he was being touted among the team’s stars. "We have a lot of stars," he said. "They may have brought me because … I speak well."
Auburn is coming off a stunning SEC championship, a worst-to-first run capped by consecutive miracle finishes to end the regular season, a Heisman Trophy finalist and a spot in the final BCS title game — a sentence that in itself would have been laughable last summer.
Opening the conference’s preview event should have been, by all accounts, about reflecting on the absurdity of it all, and the debate as to whether it was the laying groundwork for another SEC dynasty or a one-year blip fueled by luck.
Instead, coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers in attendance — Uzmoah, center Reese Dismukes and defensive lineman Gabe Wright — were left to address the player that wasn’t at the Wynfrey Hotel: Marshall.
The league’s highest-rated passer among returners (143.2) in throwing for 1,976 yards, Marshall became the fourth QB to run for more than 1,000 with 1,068 and had 26 total touchdowns in his first season at the helm after transferring from Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
With the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray off to the NFL, the Tigers senior is among those vying to become the face of the SEC this season, making him an obvious choice to be on hand at the league’s kickoff event.
But on the eve of the media days, Marshall’s name was removed from the list of attendees following a marijuana citation.
Reynolds, Ga., police reportedly found 8-9 grams of marijuana in the visor of Marshall’s purple Dodge Charger following a traffic stop for a window-tint violation. Because it was less than an ounce he was not arrested and faces a fine totaling $1,100.
Malzahn discussed the situation in his opening address, saying "Up until last Friday, Nick has been a model student, teammate and citizen. Nick made a mistake and he’ll have to deal with the consequences. … I know he’s regretful and he feels very bad about it."
He says Marshall will be punished, but as to whether that would include sitting out the opener vs. the Razorbacks, Malzahn is "not at that point yet."
A year ago, facing far more scrutiny than Marshall amid an offseason of TMZ fodder, Texas A&M put Johnny Manziel at center stage, forcing him to answer tough questions and — maybe more importantly — getting them out of the way.
Malzahn is known for his meticulous planning, rarely making a misstep at Auburn in his four seasons — three as QB coach/offensive coordinator and one as head coach.
"He’s a football genius," Uzomah said.
Not doing with Marshall what Texas A&M did with Manziel would seem to be a missed opportunity. Instead of allowing the QB to put his run-in with the law to rest — and in his own words — it opens the door for the incident to follow the Tigers into fall camp.
But as Malzahn presented it, his intent may not have been simply keeping a player in trouble out of the public spotlight, even if it comes off that way.
Gus Malzahn said of whether QB Nick Marshall will be available for the season opener vs. Arkansas he’s "not at that point yet."
"It is a privilege and a reward to represent Auburn at the SEC Media Days," he said. "Last Friday, Nick lost that privilege. We have high expectations for our players, but specifically our quarterback being the face of our program."
Malzahn went so far as to exclude Marshall when asked directly about having a starting QB for a second year — something he’s never experienced as a college coach — and instead discussed Jeremy Johnson, whose biggest contributions last season came against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic.
"The great thing is we got Jeremy Johnson which could start for a lot of teams around the country, probably a majority of them," he said. "He has two games experience last year. He was a freshman SEC offensive Player of the Week both games he played. We feel good about that."
Of course, Marshall isn’t going anywhere, no matter where the yet-to-be-decided punishment is levied. His teammates, including the one in Hoover in Marshall’s absence, are saying all the right things.
"He addressed the team," Uzmoah said. "Obviously, we’re disappointed, but we know that he’ll learn from this mistake and coach Malzahn will address it accordingly. He’s still our leader and we will still have full faith in him and we’ll see how it goes."
But it’s what Marshall himself would have said as he enters a season primed to put him among the league’s biggest stars that’s of more consequence.
For that, we’ll have to wait.
Be it a step to shelter a player, or taking away the privilege of representing his school, Marshall’s presence could have gone a long way Monday, especially for a player the Tigers themselves see as a leader.