Auburn’s Burning Questions: No. 6 – Can Nick Marshall thrive in balanced offense?

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Auburn

Several questions abound as the Auburn Tigers begin their quest to become the first team to repeat as SEC Champions since 1998. Leading up to the first day of fall practice on Aug. 1, Saturday Down South will examine the 10 burning questions the Tigers face in their quest to win back-to-back SEC Championships.

Auburn’s burning questions:

Last year the national consensus was that Auburn’s only offensive threat was running the football. So when the nation ponders the question can the Tigers develop a passing game in 2014, there will be may skeptics.

Tiger fans know though that when Nick Marshall was asked to throw the ball last year, he did a darn good job of it. Most of the nation probably wasn’t watching ESPNU’s encore presentation of last years Auburn-Texas A&M game Friday evening. If they did, they would have seen Marshall go 11-of-25 for 236 yards and two touchdowns in the Tigers upset win over the Aggies. More importantly they would have seen Marshall deliver an NFL-type throw.

Facing a third-down deep in Aggie territory, Marshall was flushed out of the pocket. While rolling to his left he delivered a touchdown pass to Quan Bray (watch from :18 to :25).

“That is a big-time throw by Nick Marshall,” CBS commentator Gary Danielson noted during the replay. “He is going to his left and he makes a 30-yard throw on a rope. It was on a rope, full speed. Look at that ball flow into the end zone. Big time play.”

Marshall was the most efficient quarterback in the country the last eight games of 2013. The number of passing attempts he put up against Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida State – 25, 26 and 27 respectively – will most likely be the norm in 2014 rather than the exception. He’ll have multiple playmakers around him that should dramatically increase his 14 touchdown passes of 2013.

Six of Auburn’s top seven receivers return from last year. That includes Sammie Coates (42 receptions), Ricardo Louis (28), Marcus Davis (23), Quan Bray (23), C.J. Uzomah (11) and Trovon Reed (9). That means that 81 percent of the balls caught last year were caught by someone that returns. Adding Duke Williams, the No. 1 JUCO wide receiver, is a huge upgrade. Williams was a two-time NJCAA All-America. In two seasons with Mississippi Gulf Coast, Williams scored 26 touchdowns while catching 118 passes for 2,028 yards. Don’t be surprised if running back Corey Grant gets involved in the passing game too. Grant has tremendous speed. Swing passes to him in the flat could turn into long gains because of his speed and elusiveness.

The goal in the spring was for Marshall to complete 70 percent of his passes. He was close to achieving that goal and his A-Day game performance reiterated his throwing ability. Head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee game planned to air it out in the spring game and Marshall was 13-of-22 for 236 yards and four touchdowns.

Just because Auburn didn’t throw the ball nearly as much as they ran it, didn’t mean Marshall wasn’t capable. Running the ball worked so well in 2013, how could Auburn abandon rushing the ball?

It took the nation until midway through the 2013 season to realize that Auburn was legitimate, let alone a national championship contender. Now that Auburn is a known commodity going into the 2014 season, it won’t take half a season this year for the nation to realize that Marshall can thrive in the Tigers passing attack. If he does it consistently and Auburn keeps winning, Marshall will be a real threat for the Heisman Trophy.

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Photo Credit: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

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