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Auburn's Nick Marshall eerily follows Cam Newton's footsteps to BCS title game

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – On the morning of Feb. 2, 2011, national letters of intent from football players started rolling off fax machines at colleges around the country.

At 8:15 a.m. that day, Georgia announced that it had received its first letters of the day from six players. Among them: long snapper Nathan Theus from Jacksonville, Fla., and an athletic in-state cornerback from Pineview named Nick Marshall.

Fifteen minutes later, the school announced that receiver Sanford Seay had signed as well. And four hours after that, defensive back Chris Sanders joined the Bulldogs class.

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Tigers RB Tre Mason (21) takes a hand off from QB Nick Marshall during practice Thursday. (USA TODAY Sports)

Almost exactly one year after that signing day, three of those players would be dismissed by coach Mark Richt for undisclosed reasons. That dark day began Marshall's improbable journey here – to a different team and a different position, and a chance to quarterback Auburn in the BCS championship game Monday night against Florida State.

Seay, Sanders and Marshall had stolen money from Theus' dorm room, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports. Marshall's role, sources said, was acting as a lookout while the theft was occurring.

When reached by Y Sports, Seay disputed that version of events: "We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was just our word against theirs. … We were in the wrong room and some money was missing and we got blamed for it."

Marshall has never said he was wrongfully accused. When asked Thursday about being dismissed and the effect it had, he sidestepped the topic: "It's just something that when I was at Georgia, I try not to think about it. It's just something I put behind me and thank the man above that I got a second chance to play college football again."

In a career path that eerily echoes that of former Auburn hero and current NFL quarterback Cam Newton, Marshall has made the most of this second chance.

Both players were booted from Southeastern Conference schools – Newton at Florida after a laptop theft and other issues. Both players found themselves in foreign territory embarking on a lonely path of redemption – Newton at Blinn Junior College in Texas; Marshall at Garden City Community College in Kansas. Both players longed for a return to the SEC and found their redemption opportunity at Auburn.

And both instantly injected new life into the program, leading the Tigers to the national title game – Newton in 2010 and Marshall now. If Marshall can take the final step and help Auburn capture the title, it will complete the parallel.

"They're guys that know how to win," said Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who was a graduate assistant during Newton's one season at the school. "They're extremely tough guys that win. They both lead our guys by example, especially on game day, with what they do."

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Nick Marshall (14) runs against Missouri during the second half of the SEC championship game. (AP)

When the hammer came down and Marshall was dismissed from Georgia, he went home to Pineview. The next day he met with his coach at Wilcox County High School, Mark Ledford, who helped his troubled former player sort out what to do next.

From the beginning, Marshall was sure what he wanted: return to playing quarterback and returning to the SEC. So Ledford called an old friend, Garden City coach Jeff Tatum, and told him he had a four-star prospect to send his way.

Just a couple of days after his dismissal at Georgia, Marshall was on his way to a new temporary home. Ledford drove him to Birmingham, Ala., and delivered him to Tatum, who drove him 14 hours in a van to the Kansas plains.

"About five or six times I'd wake up and ask, 'Are we there yet?' " Marshall recalled of that long drive. "He'd say, 'Not yet.' So I'd go back to sleep."

When he was awake, Marshall told Tatum he was sure he wanted to play quarterback. He was a two-way star in high school who chose cornerback at Georgia because it was the path to immediate playing time, but his heart was on offense.

Marshall stayed out of trouble and stuck to the books at Garden City. On the field, he was attracting plenty of attention from Division I colleges during his one season there.

"I matured more and made better decisions being out there," he said.

He considered Kansas State, which had a strong history of success with JUCO transfers. But ultimately Marshall wanted a return to the SEC and a place where his mom, Shalena Cliett, could see him play more easily. Auburn was that place.

When he signed with Auburn, the program was in transition. The Tigers had quickly and completely collapsed after the annus mirabilis with Newton, going 3-9 in 2012 and resulting in the firing of Gene Chizik.

He was replaced by Gus Malzahn, who had been the offensive coordinator for Newton before moving on to be the head coach at Arkansas State. Malzahn is a play-calling savant, but clever schemes and prescient calls only work when you've got good players – and Malzahn inherited a mess at quarterback.

Spring practice 2013 was an uninspiring competition between veterans Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier, who had combined to throw six touchdowns and 12 interceptions the previous fall. It wasn't until Marshall arrived at Auburn in June that Malzahn had the talent he needed at that most crucial of positions.

Marshall was not an overly polished passer, but he was a dazzling runner and all-around athlete. After a rocky first week of August camp, he started to pick up Malzahn's no-huddle, spread attack, and within three weeks he was named Auburn's starting quarterback.

Malzahn tailored the offense to fit Marshall's talents, which meant less throwing than with Newton and more running. But Marshall unexpectedly threw for 339 yards and led a late comeback victory over Mississippi State to go 3-0. And after a loss to LSU and an open week, Marshall really started to take off.

He ran for 140 yards and two touchdowns on just four carries against Mississippi. Then he had 336 total yards and four TDs in a statement victory over Texas A&M. There was a 214-yard rushing explosion against Tennessee, the miracle deflected bomb to beat his old school, Georgia, and several stellar plays in the upset of Alabama and the romp over Missouri in the SEC championship game.

Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has studied enough film over the past four weeks to be very impressed with the versatility of the quarterback the Seminoles will face Monday.

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Nick Marshall and center Reese Dismukes, background left, smile during Thursday's news conference. (AP)

"He can run it, he can throw it, he could play defensive back – and he can go play point guard if they need him to," Pruitt said, acknowledging Marshall's past as a standout basketball player.

(Truth be told, Auburn's struggling basketball team could indeed use him at point guard.)

Newton's one-year tour de force at Auburn was dramatic, but it was far more expected and predictable than this. He was a star quarterback recruit. Marshall went from defense to doghouse to Kansas to question-mark quarterback to standout on a 12-win team in a span of roughly 22 months.

Nobody could have foreseen this in February 2012, when three freshmen were dismissed at Georgia. But Sanford Seay, who is now enrolled at Louisiana Tech and will watch the championship game on TV Monday, had a feeling about Nick Marshall.

"When we were at Georgia, I figured he could be in this position someday," Seay said. "I knew he'd make a great impact. I'm proud of him."

 

 

 

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