By Lars Anderson
PINEVIEW, Ga. -- It was late in May when her boy finally came home to Pineview, a dusty speck of a town in rural Georgia best known for its roadside peanut market. He opened the door to his family's three-bedroom house on Commerce Street West, and the first thing Nick Marshall wanted to do was to wrap his arms around his mom, his best friend. Over the previous four months they had talked over the phone several times a week about Auburn's 2013 season, about Marshall coming oh so close to leading the Tigers to the national championship in January against Florida State before falling 34-31. In the spring she quizzed him on what he was doing to become a better passer -- "I know you can throw the ball, Nick," she'd tell him, "you just got to get your timing down better" -- but the two hadn't seen each other much since that winter night in Pasadena. So now Nick, who is so connected to his mother that he can usually hear her screaming voice even when she's in a crowd of 80,000, strode through the front door searching for an embrace.
But Shalina Cliett froze at the sight of her oldest son. She looked at him up and down, studying him, taking measure. Something was different, something profound: For the first time, through the eyes of the mother, her boy looked like a man. "You're growing out of your dang shoulders," she said, noticing the 10 pounds of muscle Marshall has added to his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame since last January. "You used to eat like a little bird, now you look like you've been eating like you've been starving to death."
Marshall introduced his two friends who had made the 140-mile trip from the Plains with him: wide receivers Tony Stevens and D'haquille Williams. Shalina, known for her country toughness and bluntness, locked eyes with Stevens, a sophomore who caught five passes last season, and then Williams, a junior who was a juco All-America in 2013 at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. "When the season starts both of you better catch everything Nick throws in your direction," Shalina told the young receivers. "You hear me. If you don't, I'll come down onto that field and come after you. I will now. I will!"
"Uh, she's not kidding," Nick said, only half-joking.
Later that afternoon, Stevens and Williams followed Marshall out the door and onto the front yard. For more than hour, the Auburn receivers ran patterns around the oaks and pecan trees that shade the well-manicured lawn. As Marshall threw almost every type of pass -- 10-yard darts over-the-middle, 20-yard timed outs, 40-yard arching rainbows -- cars driving by slowed to watch, the passengers hypnotized by the right arm of the preseason Heisman contender, the young man who potentially could be the most electrifying college football player in 2014. Marshall had spent countless hours on this lawn in his childhood hurling passes to his younger half-brother Quez Mahogany and his neighborhood friends, but this throwing session on this blue-sky day in May was different, if for only one reason:
The ball barely touched the grass.
* * *
Two hours after losing to the Seminoles, Shalina called Nick on his cell phone. He had a solid game -- he completed 14 of 27 passes for 217 yards, threw two touchdowns and one interception and ran for 45 yards and another score -- but he missed several open receivers, including Ricardo Louis on the first drive for a near-certain touchdown. In his hotel room, he promised his mother, who had watched from the stands, he wouldn't make those same mistakes again. "I'm going to get better," Marshall said over the phone. "Starting tomorrow, I'm going to work. I'm not going to miss those throws next year."
Call it the Marshall Plan. Nearly every day for the past three months, usually without coaches present, Marshall has played pitch-and-catch with his receivers, meticulously focusing on his mechanics: pointing his left toes at his target and squaring his shoulders before he unleashes the ball. During spring practice, Marshall -- who in his first season as a starter in 2013 led Auburn to fourth-quarter comeback wins over Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama -- completed 64 percent of his passes in seven-on-seven drills, according to coaches. The goal for 2014, as stated by Tiger offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, is for Marshall to connect on 65 percent of this throws, which would be an improvement over his 59.4 percentage last year. Marshall is especially focusing on developing more touch on his short and intermediate throws, which he often missed in 2013.
Marshall's running ability already haunts the sleep of SEC defensive coordinators. Operating out of the Tigers' shotgun formation last season, Marshall executed the zone-read option play as well as any quarterback that Gus Malzahn has ever coached, including Cam Newton. Flashing his 4.4 40 speed, Marshall rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns, in spite of the fact that the Auburn offense relied on three basic plays all season: zone-read left, zone-read right and play-action pass off a zone-read fake.
The expectations in the Auburn coaching offices are that Marshall will make a great leap forward in Year Two as a starter. This is unfamiliar territory for Malzahn: In his eight years as an assistant and head coach in college football, he 's never had a returning staring quarterback. Malzahn and Lashlee are asking Marshall, once the ball is snapped, to do something rare for a quarterback: stop thinking. They want him to quickly read the defense at the line, make the proper play-call adjustments, and then let his natural ability and sandlot improvisation take over. Malzahn described Marshall as more "comfortable" and "reactive" during the spring, while several receivers gushed about how he was consistently completing NFL-caliber throws. It's always easy to be seduced by potential in March and April, but the heavy breathing over Marshall is rooted is a we've-seen-the-light sincerity: Everyone in the loveliest village, after all, genuinely believes he will be one of the most improved players in the nation come September.
But will he? "Nick's biggest problem is his inaccuracy, but you saw him make huge strides with that late last season," says one former SEC head coach who has closely studied Marshall and Auburn. "The hard thing to defend with Nick is that you have to cover every gap up front in the running game, which means you have to push your safeties up. Running the ball is the key to winning this conference. And when Auburn can run it, they got you. It opens up play-action, play-action reverses, screens -- the entire offensive arsenal. It's almost scary to think how good Nick could be if he's hitting his throws."
* * *
Shalina Cliett works 12-hour shifts answering 911 calls for Wilcox County, so she's accustomed to hearing desperate voices. But nothing prepared her for the fear that flavored Nick's words when he told her on Feb. 3, 2012, that he'd been kicked off the Georgia football team for violating team rules. He was despondent, voice cracking, as he explained the situation: Earlier that morning Marshall and two of his teammates were accused of stealing from another teammate. (No charges were ever filed against Marshall.) Nick had quickly packed up his belongings in his dorm room and returned home to Pineview (pop: 532), where he walked into his bedroom and, alone, began to cry.
His mother opened the door. "Nick, it's time for you to pick yourself up," she said. "It's time to get rid of all the bad influences in your life. Now you have to earn your way back to winning a scholarship."
Mark Ledford, the Wilcox County High football coach, stopped by the house on Commerce Street West early the next morning. Ledford and Marshall had grown extremely close when Marshall was in high school. As a freshman, Marshall could throw a football 70 yards; he was the team's starting quarterback for three years and its top cornerback; and in basketball he once scored 55 points for Wilcox in a playoff game. Now, riding shotgun in Ledford's four-door pickup truck, Marshall, one of the quietest kids in his class, listened hard to his coach as they drove for over an hour along country dirt roads. "Now is a chance for a new beginning," Ledford told Marshall, who holds the Georgia high school record for most career passing touchdowns with 103. "You should get away from the negative people in your life. Start fresh somewhere. Be smart. Your future is still in front of you." Ledford eventually asked Marshall, "What do you want to do?"
For several minutes, as the two rolled past barren fields of cotton and peanut that were dotted with bales of hay, Marshall contemplated his next move in silence. He had played defensive back at Georgia as a freshman -- he didn't want to sit on the bench behind starting quarterback Aaron Murray -- but the position switch left him unfulfilled and unhappy. "I want to go to junior college and I want to play quarterback," Marshall eventually told Ledford. "Then I want to play somewhere in the SEC."
That afternoon Ledford made calls to junior colleges on Marshall's behalf. The young quarterback wanted to move far away from the state of Georgia, and so he decided to enroll at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. On Feb. 5, less than 48 hours after losing his scholarship at Georgia, he and Ledford pulled out of Pineview at 6 a.m. in Ledford's truck. They planned to meet Garden City coach Jeff Tatum -- who was driving through the night from Kansas -- outside of Birmingham, Ala. "I needed to grow up and the only way I was going to be able to do that was to get away from home," said Marshall. "It was scary leaving everything I knew and everything I was comfortable with. But it was time to become a man."
In the pickup, as the morning sun rose over Georgia, Ledford reassured Marshall that a new beginning awaited him on the high plains of western Kansas. "You need to leave everything behind you," Ledford said. "You're not going to get many more opportunities. Take advantage of this." When Ledford glanced over at Marshall, who uttered only few sentences on the trip, he spotted a familiar, steely-eyed look on his face. It was the same expression that Ledford first saw when Marshall was in ninth grade and competing in the Class-A high jump state championships. With only two weeks of training, Marshall qualified for the state finals by leaping 5 feet, 8 inches in a regional meet. Before his turn in the finals, Marshall sat by himself and closely studied the state's top jumpers, analyzing their approaches, take offs and twists and turns of their bodies. He didn't win the championship, but he did clear 6 feet, 4 inches to finish sixth. "It was one of the most impressive things in athletics I've ever seen in my entire life," said Ledford, who has been the head football coach at Wilcox for 13 seasons. "After that meet Nick never jumped again, but it just showed what a natural athlete he is."
Ledford and Marshall greeted Tatum at a gas station in Jasper, Ala. Marshall had yet to unpack his suitcases from when he had hurriedly left his dorm room in Athens, and he loaded them into the Garden City Community College van that Tatum was driving. Marshall grabbed his mini-refrigerator from the back of Ledford's truck. On the door was a Georgia Bulldogs sticker. Without saying a word, Marshall tore it off and put the refrigerator in the van.
* * *
He missed home, his mom and the slow, sleepy rhythms of life in the South. Shalina sent him care packages of Ramen noodles and cereal, which he ate in his dorm room, which was near several cow pastures. Over the phone his mom constantly reminded him that he'd lost one scholarship and now he had to work like never before to earn another one. Yet on the football field at Garden City -- which when the wind is blowing in just the right direction is perfumed by those cow pastures -- Marshall always felt at ease, like he was at home on his front yard in Pineview or across the street in a field that he and his childhood buddies called "The Georgia Dome." With his sprinter's speed, he rapidly developed into a mesmerizing duel-threat quarterback, throwing for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns and rushing for 1,095 yards and 19 more touchdowns for Garden City. In October, Shalina, who has a panic-inducing fear of flying and had never been on airplane, surprised her son by jetting west. "Mamma you flew to see me!" Nick said when she surprised him outside of his dormitory. "I'm so happy."
"You gotta keep sucking it up baby," she told her son. "Good things are about to happen you if you keep sucking it up."
Another important visitor arrived that fall: Gus Malzahn, then the coach at Arkansas State. He traveled to Garden City and told Marshal he could be an ideal fit in his up-tempo offense. Once Malzahn was hired at Auburn in December 2012, the first recruit he called was Marshall. "When I was at Auburn on my recruiting visit Tre [Mason] kept telling me that I shouldn't focus on their losing record [in 2012] and that they had tons of talent," said Marshall. "Auburn was the only SEC school to offer me, so it was an easy decision. I wanted to finish some business in this conference."
Marshall moved to Auburn in July 2013. On the sixth day of preseason practice in August, he faked a handoff and rolled to his right. On his own 10-yard-line, he unleashed a pass with a seemingly effortless flick of his right wrist that spiraled 80 yards, hitting his receiver in stride. Practice momentarily stopped, as players whooped and hollered. It was as if, in an instant, they had glimpsed their future, suddenly rich with possibility.
"You won't get much more than a 'Yes sir' or 'No sir' out of Nick, but he listens to instructions as good as any player I've ever been around," said Lashlee. "You rarely see him make the same mistake twice. He's meant everything to this team."
"I truly feel home in Auburn," Marshall says. "My mom drives to games and my teammates accepted me right away. It took me a while to get here, but all that I went through made me a better person."
* * *
His old coach watched from the sideline, mouth agape, in awe. It was a Saturday this spring, Auburn's first practice in pads, and Marshall put on a show. He looked visibly bigger to Mark Ledford -- his back and neck were bulging with muscles in places where most people don't even have places -- and Marshall threw with surgical precision. His footwork, his command of the playbook, his decisions on where to throw the ball -- they all were vastly improved from 2013. It was only a practice, yes, but there was no doubting that this was a new Nick Marshall.
"Defenses are going to have cover more parts of the field this season when they're facing Nick," Ledford says. "Last year the play calling was conservative. It won't be this year. I look for Nick to get out to the edge of the field more often."
After the practice Marshall greeted the man who helped save his college career. Marshall didn't say much to Ledford, because that's not his way. With Nick Marshall, his actions are usually his most eloquent expressions. Autumn awaits.
* * *
Lars Anderson is a 20-year veteran of Sports Illustrated and the author of six books, including The Storm and the Tide, which will be published in August. He's currently an instructor of journalism at the University of Alabama.