ATHENS — The day after he was kicked off the Georgia football team, Nick Marshall took a ride in a truck. He sat in the passenger seat as Mark Ledford, his high school coach, drove down the road aimlessly, and the two just talked.
“We met at the school, we got in the truck and rode and had us a talk,” said Ledford, the football head coach at Wilcox County. “He was completely honest with me. What he told me was what the Georgia coaches had told me. He was completely honest, but he was remorseful.”
Marshall and two fellow freshman teammates were caught stealing from another teammate the first week of February of last year. They were dismissed from the team, in an instant snuffing out three promising careers.
But in that dark moment, Marshall was already mapping out his road back to SEC football.
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“Nick, what do you want me to do?” Ledford remembers asking Marshall. “Because my phone was blowing up.”
“Coach, I want to go to junior college, I want to play quarterback, and I want to come back to the SEC,” Marshall said, according to Ledford.
It happened very quickly, and on Saturday it pits him back against the team he thought he would play for. Marshall leads seventh-ranked Auburn, one of the top surprises in the SEC, against Georgia, which sure could have used Marshall at cornerback this year.
“He’d be an all-conference type guy,” head coach Mark Richt said. “He’d be a guy who would have a very bright future at that position.”
But Marshall is now a quarterback, playing the position that made him a star at Wilcox County and put him on Georgia’s radar screen in the first place. The story of how Marshall ended up a cornerback at Georgia and then a quarterback at Auburn is one that involves a lot of people: Ledford, Mike Bobo, Gus Malzahn, Christian LeMay, and even future NBA lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Marshall, now a junior at Auburn, was a two-sport star at Wilcox County. In fact, for awhile he wanted to concentrate on basketball at the college level. It was a big reason he ended up at Georgia.
Twice, Marshall was the boys basketball AP Class A player of the year. During the spring of his junior year, he had all but decided he wanted to pursue a basketball career first. Georgia head coach Mark Fox was interested, but he was hoping Marshall would be at Georgia on a football scholarship. Football has an 85 scholarship limit, basketball has 13.
At that point, Georgia’s offer to Marshall was as a quarterback. But it only wanted to take one quarterback in its class, and LeMay committed first, that spring. So Georgia’s offer wasn’t there anymore.
But a conversation during spring practice revealed to Ledford that his star was having a change of heart.
“He said he didn’t want to play football. (But) I asked him if he was being recruited as a defensive back would he have more interest in playing football, and he said yes,” Ledford said. “So when Georgia found that out, they reoffered him as a DB. And that kind of gave him the opening to get back into Georgia and possibly do both sports.”
Marshall was good friends and AAU teammates with Caldwell-Pope, who was heading to Georgia. So Marshall was attracted to the idea of playing with Caldwell-Pope.
But other schools wanted Marshall for football, too. Florida State assistant coach Dameyune Craig actively sought him. When Craig left to join Gus Malzahn’s staff after last season, that ended up being a major reason Marshall signed with the Tigers. Auburn actually was not heavily involved when Marshall was in high school. But Tennessee did want Marshall as a quarterback, and Alabama was interested in him as a cornerback.
Georgia Tech also got involved, eyeing Marshall to be its triple-option quarterback.
But Marshall wanted to go to Georgia, keenly interested in being a two-sport player, and liked his main recruiters, Bobo and Bryan McClendon.
“Our initial conversations with him in recruiting was quarterback. That’s what we recruited him as the whole time,” Bobo said. “Then toward the end (Marshall) had a change of heart and wanted to play defense or another position. We felt he’s such a great athlete that we’d let him play whatever he wanted to play.”
Marshall’s first — and, as it turned out, only — season at Georgia was a quiet one. He played mostly on special teams, making just five tackles, including one against Auburn on a kickoff. He didn’t get any offensive snaps in practice, although Bobo said it was in his future plans.
“They knew what they had,” Ledford said of Georgia coaches. “But they also knew they had (Aaron Murray, who’s) now the most prolific passer in the SEC there, too. They were solid there.”
Then came the dorm room theft, the week of National Signing Day. Marshall, safety Chris Sanders and receiver Sanford Seay were dismissed on a Friday.
The next day, Marshall met Ledford at the Wilcox County parking lot.
While dejected regarding his dismissal, Marshall was also zeroing in on a career change.
“He wanted to play the position that got him to where he was, quarterback. And he felt like he could do it,” Ledford said. “He wanted to go to a junior college and get that done. And he wanted to come back to the SEC. I can’t say exactly what set him to it. Maybe after a year of playing in the SEC at the Division I level he thought he could handle that position.”
So Marshall got in contact with Garden City (Kan.) Community College, which was able to enroll him in classes the following week. And he played quarterback the next fall, quickly getting back on college radar screens. Craig was now at Auburn, and Marshall signed there.
The result has been a dream season for Marshall. He ranks eighth in the SEC in rushing yards per game, averaging more than last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, and Auburn ranks second in the SEC in total offense.
“What he’s doing, it’s still kind of surreal,” Ledford said, chuckling. “It’s not a surprise, but it’s still kind of surreal to see him on the big stage like that.”