Is Auburn’s Marshall ready to become face of SEC at QB?

Nick Marshall earned A-Day Offensive MVP honors, throwing for 236 yards and four touchdowns in the first half.

John Reed/John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

AUBURN, Ala. — Johnny Football is gone. So too is one half of college football’s hottest couple. The most prolific passer in SEC history? He’s NFL-bound too.

The conference, so deep at the most glamorized position on the field last season no longer has Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron or Aaron Murray, not to mention Zach Mettenberger or Connor Shaw. In all, seven of the top eight passers from a year ago have all departed, leaving the SEC devoid of true quarterback star power.

The mantel is Nick Marshall’s for the taking.

"That’s one of his big goals is to be that guy, to be an all-around quarterback and I think he’s doing a great job of working toward that," said Marshall’s Auburn teammate, running back Corey Grant. "

The senior started slow in Saturday’s A-Day Game, missing on five of his first eight passes. But then Marshall hit Quan Bray for a 59-yard touchdown late in the first quarter, the first of four, as he went 13 of 22 for 236 yards before taking a seat for the second half. It was still enough to earn Offensive MVP honors on a cool, windy day at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

"We expect that from him," said Sammie Coates, who was on the receiving end of a 19-yard TD pass from Marshall . "He knows the offense. He’s done a great job leading us and he’s making big-time plays … playmaker plays right there."

The progression of Marshall’s arm one of the biggest storylines surrounding the Tigers after their surprise run to an SEC championship and a spot in the BCS title game. A junior college transfer, he won the job in fall camp last year and completed 59.4 percent of his passes for a passing attack that ranked 104th in FBS (173 yards per game) as Auburn rode its NCAA-best running game to Pasadena.

Then there was Marshall’s effectinvess running the ball out of the read-option, as he ran for 1,068 and 12 scores. For many, he was simply a QB that took advantage of the holes opened by a superior rushing scheme.

He spent the offseason fine-tuning his passing game, working on his footwork, keeping his shoulder square and not dropping his elbow when he throws. The result, Marshall pointed out, was there on display on A-Day.

"As you can see, when I follow through on every ball, it will be somewhere the receiver can get to it," Marshall said.

It’s difficult to put too much stock into a performance in a spring game, where Gus Malzahn can coach from 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage — and have a TV analyst trailing him — and where a quarterback is protected from any form of contact. But Malzahn believes he saw a different Marshall take the stage before a crown of 70,645, the second-largest in school history.

"I think the big thing is being more comfortable," Malzahn said. "You can see him in the pocket, he’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes, his progression are good. You can tell he’s really improved."

After his rocky start, Marshall hit on 10 of his final 14 attempts, including a 3-yard TD to D’haquille Williams, the 19-yarder to Coates and a 27-yard scoring strike to Bray. The only fault Marshall could find in his day had more to do with the weather than his own inability to put the ball where needed.

"I think I threw the ball pretty well," he said. "Just a couple of throws that I know I could have made. It just came from … probably the wind, but we threw well today."

Just the first second-year starter in Malzahn’s nine years as a college coach, Marshall’s development becomes all the more important as the Tigers’ running game looks to replace a Heisman finalist in Tre Mason.

Holdovers Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne gave glimpses of a unit that could be a fitting follow-up to last season in which Auburn racked up 328.3 yards and became the first SEC team to ever lead the nation in rushing. On Saturday, Grant ran for 128 yards on five carries, including a 54-yard TD, and Artis-Payne had 97 on 12 attempts with a 14-yards score.

But the ground game was incomplete as redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who many believe could be the lead back this fall (he has Mason’s stamp of approval) took his only touch for a 13-yard gain before leaving with injury. Malzahn said Barber "will be OK" but he was held out for the rest of the game.

Still, there’s little doubt that the Tigers are going to run the ball. In eight seasons, Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of them and whether it’s Barber getting the brunt of touches or a three-man rotation, they’ll be operating behind four returning linemen, including All-American center Reese Dismukes.

Make no doubt, Auburn’s SEC title defense will weigh heavily on Marshall. If, after months of focusing on the passing game, it becomes a fitting complement to the Tigers rushing attack, it will be credited to their quarterback.

"I’m a way better passer than I was from last year," he said. "I just took all the little things the coaches did and put them into my progress and I just got better."

"I think he can," Grant said. "I know he can."