Jeff Tatum sat in the stands at Jordan Hare Stadium less than a week ago, knowing that Auburn needed a miracle on 4th and 18 to rally against Georgia. As worry enveloped his face, Tatum’s young daughter looked up to him and said, “don’t worry Dad, Nick will find a way, he always does.”
You know what happened next: Marshall, Auburn’s first-year QB, uncorked a Hail Mary heave that was tipped and improbably fell into the arms of Ricardo Louis for one of the most dramatic touchdowns in SEC history, and the Tigers were victorious, 43-38.
As the stadium rocked with delirium and Georgia coaches fell to the ground in disbelief, Tatum’s daughter looked up to her dad and said, “I told you he was going to find a way!”
Tatum knows Nick Marshall as well as anyone. After Marshall was kicked out of Georgia for allegedly stealing money from the wallets of teammates in the locker room (other reports say a dorm room), Tatum restored his career and revived Marshall’s confidence at a quarterback. You could say Tatum – with the help of Marshall’s high school coach, Mark Ledford – saved Nick Marshall’s football career, and you wouldn’t be wrong.
Nick Marshall is one of the greatest 2-sport high school athletes Georgia has seen in the last three decades. Even though everyone now knows him as an electrifying football player, Marshall was initially thought to have a basketball future. An All-State guard who averaged 27.5 ppg for Wilcox County, Marshall was an AAU teammate of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who ended up being an NBA lottery pick in 2013. One writer who saw both both go head-to-head in the State quarterfinals said Marshall looked like a “poor man’s Travis Leslie” on the court, but had Champ Bailey potential at cornerback.
Enamored with the idea of playing college basketball with his friend, Marshall followed Caldwell-Pope to Georgia, where he agreed to walk-on to the basketball team and play hoops for Mark Fox and football for Mark Richt. Marshall was part of Georgia’s ’2011 Dream Team’ recruiting class that hasn’t quite panned out. On the gridiron, he agreed to be moved to cornerback – Aaron Murray was the starter at QB – despite setting a State record with 103 career touchdown passes (in three years) and ranking 10th in Georgia high school with 8,043 yards passing.
After a nondescript freshman season playing special teams and in the secondary, the theft happened.
“What happened at Georgia was a learning experience,” Tatum told me this week. “Part of life is going through some adversity, and how you handle it.”
It’s still unclear what exactly went down, and good luck finding anyone willing to talk about it now. But Marshall and two teammates were booted from the team , and within days, he left Athens, football destination unknown.
That’s when his high school football coach, Mark Ledford, got Marshall in touch with Tatum, who was then at Garden City Community College in Kansas. A shot at starting over. A shot at redemption. It all happened in three whirlwind days.
“When he came back from Georgia – it was very humbling,” Ledford told me. “Not everybody was on his side. There is a lot of pressure here [Pineview, Georgia], and there are a lot of Georgia fans. Nick came home on a Friday, we talked, and by Monday, he was on his way to Garden City. By Tuesday, he was in class.”
Tatum, who had seen Marshall play in high school, knew what he was getting, and wasted no time installing Marshall at QB.
“All along, he wanted to play quarterback, even at Georgia,” Tatum said. “But Nick is the kind of kid who doesn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. Georgia had Aaron, and Nick was just the kind of guy where he was going to go along with whatever they said. You can see it in his eyes – he wants to please everybody. That’s a strength and weakness he has. He’s not the kind of guy who makes waves on a team.”
Marshall led Garden City to a 7-4 record, posted impressive numbers, and attracted attention from primarily three schools: Texas (which had major QB issues), Kansas State (Bill Snyder saw Marshall as a Michael Bishop-type QB, Ledford said) and Auburn. Marshall got his academics in order. Texas backed off. Auburn hired Gus Malzahn. Marshall picked the Tigers. And Marshall put basketball behind him, finally.
“You know he still hasn’t had a full summer to work on just being a quarterback,” Ledford noted. “It was basketball, or it was cornerback, or it was academics. Next summer will be Nick’s first working on just being a quarterback.”
A natural athlete relying mostly on ability, was a record-setting QB in high school … while focusing on basketball. What are we looking at here, a late-blossoming version of Johnny Manziel, perhaps? Tatum thought a comparison to Terrelle Pryor – also a standout basketball player in high school, but at 6-foot-6 – wasn’t a bad one.
“If Nick had been in one system …” and Ledford’s voice trails off, possibly not wanting to get ahead of himself. Ledford dodged questions about Marshall as a Heisman candidate next season, but it’s inevitable, regardless of what happens with FSU’s Jameis Winston. Marshall has been compared to Charlie Ward, the last true dual sport college football star – surely there is an argument for Julius Peppers – who loved basketball and ended up in the NBA.
But first, the Iron Bowl. Auburn. Alabama. One of the best rivalries in the sport, with just a little at stake – a spot in the SEC title game, BCS Championship ramifications, things like that.
Don’t expect Marshall to be rattled.
Ledford attended the Georgia thriller, and after everyone had emptied their lungs screaming with joy and left to party, he met up with Marshall.
“He was kind of nonchalant, like he normally is,” his high school coach said. “It was like he just played any other game. Nothing’s really too big of a deal for him. He’s just a country kid from Georgia who’s had a long road. He’s overcome some things to get where he is now.”