AUBURN, Ala. — As Cam Newton sweats it out in Gatorade’s latest national ad campaign, another Auburn Heisman hopeful is left to wonder when he will have the opportunity to earn a Gatorade of his own during this weekend’s season opener against Arkansas.
When the internet lit up in July with the news of Nick Marshall’s offseason marijuana bust, quiet doubts about the 2014 season grew into a roar. After all, it was already going to be hard enough to rekindle the magic of the Tiger’s historic 2013 campaign.
How would Auburn handle such an incident less than two months ahead of kickoff? Where does the embattled QB stand as the team’s leader? What does this mean for his career? And, most importantly, what would head coach Gus Malzahn do?
Fans hoped for answers at SEC Media Days, which were held shortly after the bust. But Malzahn chose to bench Marshall from the event, echoing 2010’s Cam-less post-game press conferences and successfully shielding his quarterback from journalists only too eager to ask the tough questions.
That was the first indication that Marshall would benefit from the experience Malzahn gained while dealing with Cam’s alleged indiscretions in 2010, when Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator and Newton was a quarterback sacked by bad publicity.
While no details emerged on Marshall’s future, Malzahn did make it clear that the seat behind the mic was a privilege the quarterback had deprived himself of.
With that, Malzahn demonstrated a much-needed steady hand at the helm of the Auburn Tigers. After 2012’s dismal season that swirled with rumors of unrest within the program, the sweater-vested coach with no margin for huddles or errors proved a capable leader both on and off the field.
So, what about Nick Marshall?
At a press conference in early August, he stood behind a podium for the first time since the incident, appearing remorseful yet collected as he fielded a barrage of questions. His responses emphasized his desire to rebuild trust. He looked like a player — and a man — who had sincerely matured in the wake of a mistake.
And while all parties involved would probably prefer the incident never happened, it may end up being the catalyst the embattled quarterback needed to focus on the daunting task at hand.
Having also lost the privilege to start the season opener, Marshall spent the days after the incident immersing himself in preseason practices and film sessions. He’s achieved “marked improvement” as a passer, according to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, which must be horrifying to opposing defenses who already viewed him as one of the nation’s top dual threat QBs.
But the most impressive progression Marshall has made over the last couple of months is as a leader.
He is leaving no doubt about where he stands now; teammates report a more vocal leadership style, hinting at a quarterback eager to prove himself worthy of his former position at the top of the depth chart.
In an era when talent and notoriety often erase the consequences of indiscretions, Gus Malzahn and his Tigers have come together to remind us what integrity and accountability look like.
Fans have responded by rallying around the quarterback, their anticipation of the 2014 season unabated by the offseason setbacks.
Backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson, the likely candidate for the first snap against Arkansas, is even lauding Marshall as Heisman-worthy.
In the aftermath of an untimely downfall, it would appear as though a latent bravado has emerged in Nick Marshall. And when he does get the opportunity to join his teammates on the field, it probably won’t take long to see that the weighty issues of the summer have made him a stronger quarterback, and Auburn a better team.
Follow Shanna on Twitter @shannalo