Marshall work-in-progress as QB for Malzahn’s Tigers

AUBURN, Ala. — The program featured a smiling Gus Malzahn in an orange visor and orange polo shirt with the headline “It’s A New Day” stretched across the cover.

The slogan, which the new Auburn coach himself has used more than a time or two in his short tenure, has popped up across Alabama, appearing on 50 billboards, and it’s led to one fan putting Malzahn’s slogan to Celine Dion’s “A New Day Has Come.”

That “New Day” began with a 31-24 win over Washington State, but in order to get the Tigers back to what they were, Malzahn is going with a formula from a very lucrative past.

The combination of the up-tempo/no-huddle guru and a dual-threat junior college transfer quarterback once resulted in a Heisman Trophy and a national championship for Auburn. The latest iteration, though, pleads for something other than hardware: it begs for patience.

Nick Marshall’s first snap as a Tiger, the ball slipped out of his hands and bounced to the Jordan-Hare turf. He picked it up and was swallowed by Cougars linebacker Daryl Monroe for a 4-yard loss.

“I was kind of nervous on the first drive,” Marshall said.

The 6-foot-1, 210 pounder didn’t complete his first pass until the second quarter, finishing 10 of 19 for 99 yards and he ran nine times for 27 yards.

“There are a couple of things, communication-wise, that we’ll get better on,” Malzahn said. “But he protected the football and that’s hard to do.”

Marshall is not Cam Newton, even if the similarities make the comparisons unavoidable.

Like Newton — who left Florida after he was booted from the team for stealing a laptop — Marshall started at another SEC school, Georgia, where he played defensive back. But after a violation of team rules stemming from the theft of money from the Bulldogs locker room, Marshall was dismissed from school.

Following in Newton’s footsteps, he rehabbed his image at a community college, spending last season at Garden City CC in Kansas — Newton would attend Blinn College in Texas — where he threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns and ran for 1,095 yards and 19 more scores.

But their pasts and their paths to The Loveliest Village On The Plains are where the talk should stop. Newton wasn’t lightning in a bottle; he was capturing the Incredible Hulk in a thimble, producing arguably the single greatest season in college football history.

No, Marshall is not Newton, at least not after one game — and frankly Auburn doesn’t need him to be.

Amid the QB’s debut, it was the Tigers running backs that proved the most potent and reliable part of Malzahn’s offense.

Washington State is coming off a 3-9 season in Mike Leach’s debut, but its veteran defense has plenty of potential. Led by Jim Thorpe Award nominee Deone Bucannon at safety, the Cougars returned nine starters and 85 percent of its tackles from last season, a figure that is the eighth-most in the nation — and the Tigers still ran with relative ease.

In all, Auburn totaled 297 yards, the most damage coming from Corey Grant, who ripped off a 75-yard TD run in the second quarter in racking up 146 yards on just nine carries. Meanwhile, Cameron Artis-Payne (52 yards) and Tre Mason (73 yards and a TD) — he also ran a kickoff back 100 yards for a score — showed off the depth of the Tigers’ backfield.

After ranking 78th last season (156.5 ypg), Auburn would seem to have all the pieces in place to provide a steady rushing attack. But this offense, as Malzahn’s is predicated, can have its quirky play cards — Saturday’s included one with rapper Rick Ross — but it goes nowhere long term without an electric playmaker at the controls.

One start in, Marshall only showed that in flashes as he served largely as a game manager, and the two clearest moments coming on a drive that would end with a 42-yard field goal by Cody Parkey.

On second-and-7 at the Tigers’ 18-yard line, Marshall was alone in the backfield with an unblocked Cougars defense bearing down on him. He slipped out of the tackle and hit Coates on the run for a 12-yard completion. Eight plays later, at Washington State’s 36, Marshall rolled out to his right searching for an open man. When nothing materialized, he cut back across field, outrunning two closing defenders and as he reached the left hash mark, he juked his way past another, running down the sideline for a 7-yard game.

“By halftime, it slowed down,” Marshall said. “I felt more comfortable after that.”

He piqued the interest of Leach, who said, “I’m curious about him after he gets some more games under his belt.”

There were those moments to hold on to, but here were also plenty of misses on Marshall’s part, including missing Ricardo Louis on what would have been a 48-yard TD in the third quarter and missing a wide-open C.J. Uzomah for another score. But with a limited playbook, he wasn’t given many chances to get into a groove. After an incompletion six plays into the second quarter he would not attempt another pass until the second play of the third quarter, about an hour in real time.

“I really wasn’t worried about throwing the ball much,” Marshall said. “Just stick to the game plan.”

Marshall, as a microcosm of Auburn under its new/old leadership, is a work in progress. He isn’t Cam Newton — all similarities be damned — he’s just a QB with a past he’s put behind him, happy to prove he belongs in the SEC again.

“That’s what I base myself as, just being able to compete in the SEC,” Marshall said.

At this stage, that’s all the Tigers need from Nick Marshall.