Georgia at Auburn
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jordan Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
AUBURN, Ala. — Mark Richt figures Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall would have been have been "an all-conference type guy" if he'd been able to remain at Georgia.
He'd also be a defensive back.
Marshall has resurrected his career as a dual-threat quarterback after the one-year switch to defense and led the seventh-ranked Tigers into Southeastern Conference contention. On Saturday, he'll lead them against his former team, the 25th-ranked Bulldogs.
"He's familiar with them, there's no doubt," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday. "But if he holds true to past experience this year, he doesn't get too high or too low. Not much really rattles him. He stays pretty calm no matter what the moment."
This one might be a little different, even though Marshall and the Tigers (9-1, 6-0 SEC) downplay the significance of facing his former team. Marshall spent one season in the Bulldogs' secondary and then was dismissed, along with two other players, in February 2012 for stealing from a teammate.
Marshall, who set a Georgia high school record with 103 career touchdown passes, insists this is just another game.
"It doesn't mean too much," he said after the Tennessee game. "It's just another opponent that's in our way."
By all accounts, Marshall has been a good citizen since signing with Auburn after a season running the offense at Garden City Community College.
He has definitely been a big reason for the Tigers' turnaround from a 3-9 season. The athleticism that made Richt like his potential in the secondary has been especially evident lately, as Auburn hasn't really needed a passing game.
A quick and shifty runner, Marshall has attempted only 15 passes combined in easy wins over Arkansas and Tennessee.
His 214 rushing yards against the Volunteers ties him for the third-highest total by an Auburn quarterback with Bobby Hunt in 1959 and was the most by any SEC player this season. Cam Newton's best game on the ground during his 2010 national championship and Heisman Trophy run was 217 yards.
Richt said he started out recruiting Marshall as a quarterback but figured his future was at defensive back.
"He'd be an all-conference type guy," the Bulldogs coach said. "He'd be a guy who would have a very bright future at that position. But he's a very talented guy. He has multi-talented skills and he's using them at quarterback right now."
Marshall has rushed for 734 yards this season, tops among SEC quarterbacks. He's averaging fewer than 18 pass attempts per game, and Auburn is thriving.
"If we throw it seven or nine times the rest of the way, we're going to be winning games," Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, "because what that means is we're running the football and nobody's stopping it."
Marshall has grown increasingly successful with the zone read, where he can either hand off or keep the ball based on reading the defensive end.
And recent opponents haven't been able to stop it very often. Marshall had an interception returned for a touchdown in the second quarter against the Volunteers but followed that with a 38-yard touchdown run two plays later. He also had a 62-yard run to set up another TD earlier in the quarter.
"He makes the reads perfectly," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "Sometimes he makes one guy miss and he's gone."
Auburn tailback Corey Grant said Marshall has just gotten better at the zone read. The result is a running game racked up 444 yards against Tennessee — and only 35 passing.
Marshall has thrown for 339 yards against Mississippi State and topped 200 yards in the LSU and Texas A&M games. He hasn't been having to put up that kind of passing numbers.
"And it turns out, it's coming out better on his end, because he gets more rush yards every week," Grant said.
Marshall faces a bigger challenge from the Bulldogs, who are fourth in the SEC in run defense. Arkansas is 11th and Tennessee last in the league defending the run.
Grant said Marshall hasn't spoken much about facing his former team, but figures there might be a little extra motivation.
"He's really the same guy he would be if we were playing anybody else," Grant said. "I know in his heart, he's probably going to come a little bit harder."