HOOVER, Ala. — Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wasted no time addressing the topic.
His quarterback Nick Marshall, was the starter for a team that raced to the national title game last season. He’s back for his second year in Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle system, too, and is garnering preseason Heisman Trophy buzz.
So the reality was clear: Marshall’s absence during the first day of the summer circus because of an off-the-field issue that occurred last Friday couldn’t be avoided.
“It is a privilege and a reward to represent Auburn here at SEC Media Days,” Malzahn said, addressing Marshall’s status during his opening comments. “Last Friday, Nick lost that privilege. We have high expectations for our players, but specifically our quarterback, being the face of our program.”
Auburn’s defense of its 2013 SEC championship — and aim to win a national title after falling agonizingly short last season — continued with an important question in the Wynfrey Hotel ballroom Monday. Will the SEC’s top returning quarterback be on the field when the Tigers open the season against Arkansas on Aug. 30?
Marshall was cited, but not arrested, for having less than one ounce of marijuana in his car after being pulled over in Georgia late last week. He was removed from the Tigers’ media day roster two days later. Malzahn confirmed Monday the quarterback, who threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 more and accounted for 26 touchdowns, will face “consequences” because of the incident.
Specifics haven’t been ironed out, but Malzahn didn’t rule out the possibility of missing playing time when pressed for more information Monday.
“I’m not to that point yet,” Malzahn said. “We’ll see.”
Either way, Malzahn said Auburn will be ready to take its first step toward repeating what will be remembered as a magical season.
The Tigers completed one of the biggest turnarounds in history, erasing bitter memories of the 3-9 record in 2013. It included two of the most improbable finishes in college football history: the prayer at Jordan-Hare against Georgia and the kick-six against Alabama. It pushed Auburn back into the national title game and got the program, according to Malzahn, “back to where it should be.”
Marshall was one of the catalysts of the turnaround.
The former Georgia defensive back proved to be a natural fit for Malzahn’s system, leaning predominantly on his legs to lead Auburn to wins. But Marshall — who will be the first two-year staring quarterback under Malzahn — worked on his passing over the offseason to become more of an all-around threat for 2014.
“You can kind of account for the running backs running through the hole, but then Nick will take off for 200-plus yards like he did against Tennessee,” Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah said. “That added dimension is definitely there. With the added work he’s put in in the offseason with the throwing, our offense is definitely a triple-headed monster. It’s going to be fun to watch and play in.”
Arkansas will be the first to see any improvements up close — if Marshall plays.
But expectations won’t change if he sits, paving the way for sophomore Jeremy Johnson (422 yards, 6 touchdowns in 6 appearances). Neither will the pressure.
Malzahn said the Tigers understand the difficulty of repeating as they try to become the first SEC team to win back-to-back titles since Tennessee in 1997-98. He said the Razorbacks should offer the difficult test, too, believing they’ll be much improved.
“Last year we weren’t on anybody’s radar,” Malzahn said. “We snuck up on a lot of people. This year we know we’re going to be circled. We talked about that with our players. But at the same time, I feel like that’s good pressure.”
Center Reese Dismukes said Auburn has plenty of incentive as well after Florida State’s game-winning drive in the final minute of the national title game. The Seminoles became the first non-SEC team to win the title since 2005.
“Coming up short gives us motivation,” Dismukes said. “Deep down inside you have that in the back of your head. Look, we’ve got to be 13 seconds better getting to class, 13 seconds better brushing your teeth, 13 seconds better at whatever you do.”
Marshall’s off-the-field mistake wasn’t a good moment. But the incident is far from unforgivable. In fact, Malzahn said Marshall is “very remorseful and that’s the start.”
Missing the “privilege” of representing the Tigers at SEC Media Days was one noticeable part of Marshall’s punishment. But teammates stressed the quarterback hasn’t lost their respect as Auburn inches closer to opening day.
“There’s worse cases where people bounce back,” Auburn defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “There’s no doubt I think Nick will.”