AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn's Nick Marshall is enjoying a luxury none of Gus Malzahn's other college starting quarterbacks have had.
Marshall gets to return for a second season as the starter. He's going through his first spring practice and aiming to show everyone that he's much more than a runner with a strong arm.
"I hope this time next fall that they just feel he's truly a complete quarterback," Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "I think he's got the talent."
Auburn's offense flourished with Marshall operating the zone read, either handing off to Tre Mason or keeping it and darting through the line. It seemed simple but was effective enough for the Tigers to win the Southeastern Conference and make it to the national championship game.
Malzahn has even higher expectations for Marshall since he's had eight different full-time starting quarterbacks in as many years on the college level.
Malzahn repeatedly spoke about the handicap the junior college transfer was saddled with last season after not being around for the spring.
The result was a midseason shift to a heavy reliance on the zone read as coaches discovered what worked best for Marshall at the time. He attempted a combined 26 passes in wins over Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri in the SEC championship game.
Malzahn said the pre-snap challenges of operating a hurry-up, no-huddle offense alone require more than a handful of practices to master.
"Really, what Nick did with two weeks of practice was really phenomenal," he said. "So the little things the casual eye has seen would be frustrating, but a lot of times there was a lot more to it than what it looks like.
"The goal for him will be at the end of the spring to know our base offense, our base fundamentals and be reactive. We really feel like that's going to happen and it will happen before the end of the spring."
Marshall feels as if it's already begun. Teammates say the soft-spoken quarterback has been more of a vocal leader since last season with a stronger comfort zone with both them and the offense. Marshall acknowledged he hesitated to speak up sometimes last season.
He passed for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns against six interceptions and rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 scores.
One number Lashlee is looking for a big improvement on is Marshall's 59.4 percent completion rate since he's not having to learn on the go any more.
Auburn's thin, inconsistent receiving group didn't help matters. Now, the nation's top-rated junior college receiver D'haquille Williams and freshman signee Stanton Truitt are already enrolled and going through spring. All of Marshall's top targets are back, led by Sammie Coates.
"We've got great receivers this year," Marshall said. "It's going to be sick watching them this year."
He also missed some open receivers last season. But the Tigers had the nation's top rushing attack to fall back on, running for a whopping 545 yards against Missouri.
Auburn was far more balanced in the national title game loss to Florida State.
Lashlee said Marshall's improvement in some aspects was clear late in the season.
"Now, you just hope he's well-rounded," the offensive coordinator said. "It's not a deal where they say, 'Hey, if we can stop him running the ball, we beat him' ... You hope it's this: 'Hey, whatever they want to take away, that's great, we're going to beat them with the other thing.' He's a well-rounded, complete player, and you can take what they give you."