The improbable growth of Marshall

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NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Improbability is a word that Auburn has grown accustomed to hearing. The team that went 3-9 a year ago is playing for the crystal football. The Prayer at Jordan-Hare and the Kick Six propelled the No. 2 Tigers into the Vizio BCS National Championship against No. 1 Florida State on a wave of momentum.

Those narratives have obscured the rise of quarterback Nick Marshall, and if the junior transfer from Georgia via Garden City (Kan.) Community College is comfortable anywhere, it's in obscurity.

"I'm not a rowdy guy," Marshall said Saturday.

He speaks softly, his small-town (Pineview) Georgia roots stretching every syllable.

"I really just lead by example, by my actions," Marshall said. "That's the most comfortable thing for me. The whole offense realizes it, too, and they just follow my lead."

In 12 games this season (he missed the Western Carolina game with a knee injury), Marshall ran for 1,023 yards and 11 touchdowns on 156 carries, and threw for 1,759 yards and 12 touchdowns on 212 attempts. It has been a season that would swell the head of most young players.

Marshall is not most young players.

"He has been extremely humble," Auburn offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Rhett Lashlee said of Marshall. "You're never going to hear him talk about himself. You're never going to hear him out trying to seek attention. At the same time, he's been extremely coachable. There's not been one time I've ever asked him to do anything or got on him hard that he's given me a look, mumbled under his breath, acted [with] any defiance at all. He's just bought in completely."

Marshall has proved to be a dangerous runner in head coach Gus Malzahn's offense, yet his ability to deliver the ball where it needs to be thrown is what concerns Seminoles defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt most.

"Everybody knows they can run the ball. That's what they do," Pruitt said. "But to me, when they can create explosive plays in the pass game, that's when you're in trouble. I think he has really, really good arm talent. They've not asked him to do a whole lot, so it's hard to figure out how accurate he is. But he's made some throws over the last six weeks that you say, 'Wow.'"

Marshall will take the field at the Rose Bowl on Monday only months after arriving at Auburn. He enrolled this past summer, which means he missed the tutorials of spring practice. He knew only one player on the team, wide receiver Quan Bray, a former backcourt mate in AAU basketball. When Bray heard Auburn had signed Marshall, he told someone, "Oh, yeah, man. We're about to go to a national championship."

This after the turmoil of last season.

"I just knew what type of athlete he was," Bray said. "I had seen that he was a baller on the court. I had seen what kind of drive and passion he had for the game, for sports, period. I just knew if he came in and still had that type of motivation, we were going to fall in behind him and make plays."

Marshall came in cold, yet Malzahn handed him the keys to the offense.

"You're talking about a guy that we learned about playing games, probably the first four games," Malzahn said. "And he learned the offense the first four games. For him to lead us here is really something."

In his first season at Georgia in 2011, Marshall was moved to cornerback. Coach Mark Richt also played Marshall on special teams as a freshman for the SEC East champions. Georgia dismissed Marshall from the team in February 2012 because of his involvement in the theft of money at a campus dormitory, after which Marshall played one season at Garden City.

He doesn't shy away from what he describes as "my incident." He speaks of it as something that he had to overcome. From cornerback to dismissal to junior college to sudden starter to the BCS title game -- Marshall's own story is one more chapter in the improbable tale of the 2013 Tigers.

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