When Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was asked what things he is looking for from his trio of young running backs – Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas and Kamryn Pettway – he stressed that the position is much more than running. It’s about pass protection, lining up correctly and getting into a route properly. None of those, though, are his primary concern.

“Who will protect the football, that is what is on my mind,” said Malzahn.

Auburn’s slogan among the players this season is “TnT XIII.” TnT means together and tough while the roman numerial XIII refers to the Tigers being 13 seconds away from winning last year’s national championship.

“There are a lot of things that we have to be 13 seconds better at,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said on Sunday. “No. 1 for us is ball security.”

With the Tigers having a running quarterback capable of rushing for more than 1,000 yards in Nick Marshall, being careful with the football doesn’t just fall on Auburn’s running backs.

“We have challenged the whole team but especially the quarterback position,” said Lashlee. “I did think Nick did a pretty good job throwing the ball last year. There were four glaring fumbles in the year that were really bad. There were four others…. that were (between) him and a running back. Whose fault it was really didn’t matter. It has got to be corrected.”

As a team, Auburn put the ball on the ground 30 times last season and lost it 11. Lashlee didn’t mention which four fumbles were the glaring ones. According to AuburnTigers.com, Marshall was credited with six of the 11 fumbles.

  • vs. Missouri – Sacked for a six-yard loss on Auburn 43-yard line. RESULT: Missouri field goal
  • vs. Missouri – Rushed for three-yard loss on Auburn 14-yard line. RESULT: Returned for Missouri touchdown
  • vs. Texas A&M – Rushed for one-yard gain on Auburn 45-yard line. RESULT: Auburn interception
  • vs. Ole Miss – Rushed for five-yard loss on Ole Miss 21-yard line. RESULT: Ole Miss punt
  • vs. LSU – Rushed for two-yard loss on LSU 43-yard line. RESULT: LSU touchdown
  • vs. Ark State – Rushed for seven-yard loss on Auburn 17-yard line. RESULT: Arkansas State field goal

Of Auburn’s 11 lost fumbles, five of them came in the second half of games. Yet in the last nine games of the year, Auburn didn’t fumble once in the second half – a major reason why they were in the BCS National Championship game.

It seemed Marshall had gotten control over his fumbles toward the latter part of the season. After the Texas A&M game, he went five games without putting it on the deck. But in Atlanta against Missouri, Marshall fumbled three times in the first 17 minutes of the game. Of the two that he lost, the first one came on Auburn’s fourth offensive play of the game.

It was against the two Mississippi schools and the season-opener against Washington State  – again, games in the first half of the year – when late fumbles made things a little too interesting for Auburn.

In the fourth quarter of the Ole Miss game with a 27-16 lead, Marshall fumbled but the defense stepped up sacking Bo Wallace twice on the ensuing Rebels possession and forced Ole Miss to punt. Later in the quarter, with the Tiger led cut to five, 27-22, Cameron Artis-Payne put it on the dirt. Again the defense bailed the offense out, though, this time with an interception. The Tigers were clinging to a 31-24 and tried to run the clock out against the Cougars when Mason fumbled at midfield with four minutes left. The Cougars advanced on the Tigers 27-yard line but turned it over on downs.

Considering how much pressure a zone-read offense puts on a quarterback and ball security, Marshall did a good job last season. Reps in practice this fall will only help.