AUBURN, Ala. -- The talk on the Plains this spring has been all about Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and how he has improved as both a passer and a leader.
Marshall exceeded expectations last year as he guided the Tigers to 12 wins and a conference championship in his first year on campus, but his completion percentage was below 60 percent and he was ninth in the league in passing yards. He was known more for his running ability, leading all SEC quarterbacks with more than 1,000 yards rushing.
On Saturday, he looked like a different player out there. Marshall came out throwing, and although it took him a minute to find his rhythm, he finished 13-of-22 for 236 yards with four touchdowns and zero interceptions -- all in the first half. He threw for that many yards just twice last season and never came close to that many touchdowns.
“I think he did a good job with his eyes, his progression,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “He didn’t put the ball in jeopardy.
“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable. You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes, his progression are good. So you can tell he’s really improved.”
Marshall’s performance Saturday was quite a contrast to the quarterbacks on the other side of the state, but what should we make of all this? Is he that improved as a passer? Should we go ahead and give him the Heisman Trophy? Will anybody be able to stop Auburn?
Hold on. Before everybody gets too excited, let’s not forget who Marshall was throwing against. It was a combination of the second-team defense and scout-team players. Former walk-on Mack VanGorder was playing safety and finished second on the team in tackles. Linebacker Michael Clifton wore No. 83 because he was a tight end last year. It’s fair to say that Auburn’s starting quarterback had a stiffer test against Florida Atlantic last year.
However, there were still plenty of positives to take away from the game, beginning with wide receiver D’haquille Williams, or Duke as they call him.
Williams arrived in January as the nation’s top junior college player, and he looked every bit the part in Saturday’s spring game. He led the team with five catches for 88 yards and made a terrific grab on a 3-yard fade route for a touchdown.
“He’s a playmaker,” Malzahn said. “There’s no doubt. He can get open. He’s one of those big, long, rangy guys that wants the football and makes a pretty good target for a quarterback.”
The wide receiver corps in general looked much improved in the spring game. Last year’s breakout star Sammie Coates has put on 15 pounds since the BCS title game and made the catch of the day with a one-handed grab in the back of the end zone. Veteran Quan Bray caught two touchdown passes from Marshall, and though he had a quiet afternoon, Ricardo Louis will be counted on again this fall.
“Our group is so tight,” Coates said. “The way we’re playing right now -- we’ve got so much talent in that room -- it’s scary. There are so many players in that room that can make plays at any time. Any time you give it to them, they’re going to make a play.”
So yes, it was an inferior defense that Auburn’s first-team offense ran the score up on, but the talent at wide receiver is there and, after a slow start, Marshall played more consistently and made some throws he might not have been able to make last season. For once, he looked comfortable in the pocket.
It’s a small sample size, but if Marshall in fact proves himself as a passer this coming season, there’s nothing stopping this Auburn offense.
“We’re just helping each other get better every day,” Marshall said. “There’s no telling how good we can be on the offensive side of the ball.”