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May 21, 2013

Home on the range

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This is the second installment of a exclusive, three-part series examining quarterback Nick Marshall.

GARDEN CITY, Kan. | Nick Marshall is wearing a t-shirt and shorts while strolling though the cinder-block hallways of Garden City Community College on a spring afternoon when an older woman, obviously a secretary, gawks at him.

Marshall stops to peer through the doors of the practice gym -- basketball always will be one of his loves -- and the woman decides this is her shot to say something. She's keenly aware of this young man, the things he's done on the field, the things he'll do on bigger fields later this year.

"You're Nick Marshall, aren't you?"

"Yes, ma'am, I am," he says firmly.

"We were out there watching you all season. We're all so proud of you. We'll always remember what you did for our team."

The compliment somehow hits the 6-foot-2 quarterback oddly. Graduation is only a few days away and he'll report to his next destination, Auburn University, in June. Things never will be the same -- and he knows it.

"Thank you for watching," Marshall says, now turning his body toward the woman. "This place did so much for me. I'll always remember it."

Before leaving, she adds: "Don't forget us when you become a big star someday."

Marshall just laughs.

"I don't know about all that," he said.

But he does.

Marshall knows he's a star. He's always been a star. He set the Georgia high school record for career passing touchdowns; the first player ever to crack 100. He earned a scholarship to Georgia as a cornerback. He later came to Garden City, decided to play quarterback instead and finished among the national top 10 in both passing and rushing.

There's more.

When Marshall arrived in this western Kansas town in February 2012, the Broncbusters utilized a pro-style offense. Yet coach Jeff Tatum decided to make a change and hired former Kansas State assistant Matt Miller to install a spread attack.

This was in July.

Marshall had two months to learn the new system before GCCC's opening game against Independence. Miller, a former Kansas State quarterback who was one of three finalists for the Davey O'Brien Award in 1995, had some reservations initially.

After watching Marshall practice one time, though, Miller was convinced this would be a fruitful collaboration. He saw visions of former Kansas State pupils Michael Bishop and Ell Roberson.

"From the beginning, it was a no-brainer: He is the most talented quarterback I've ever been around," Miller said. "I've been around some special, special dual-threat guys. What makes Nick different is that he's got the size and the strength. He's not a small guy. He throws off 300-pounders. He's just naturally strong. He has Michael Bishop's strength and arm strength."

Marshall had no problems adjusting to the new system.

In his first game, he went 12-of-23 for 215 yards and rushed for 155 more. Marshall accounted for six touchdowns that day -- four on the ground and two through the air. Those trends didn't abate. Thorough his first five junior college games -- his first games as a quarterback since high school -- he'd completed 56 percent of his passes, thrown for 1,350 yards and rushed for another 560 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Marshall was becoming a phenomenon.

"Nick was just doing what we all knew he could do," said slot receiver Tyreek Hill, who was Marshall's No. 2 target last season. "He's unstoppable. That's just how it is."

One team knew how to stop Marshall.

Butler County Community College, which played for the NJCAA title and sent 11 players to FBS programs this year, focused on gap control on an early October day and made pass rush a secondary concern.

The result: An 84-13 Butler win. Marshall rushed for a net loss of 13 yards on 15 attempts, the only game he didn't score a rushing touchdown, and was intercepted three times.

That was an important trend.

Eighty-four points represents a complete defensive collapse. In fact, the Broncbusters conceded 42 points or more five separate occasions last season. Marshall often found himself playing behind against better teams, which stoked his competitive fire to an extreme degree.

He was trying to do everything. In the process, Marshall became prone to interceptions. Fleeing the pocket became a more common occurrence and the quarterback's decision-making while on the run was wobbly -- great in some cases, miserable in others.

Marshall finished the season with 18 touchdown passes and 20 interceptions.

"I just had an instinct. When I feel pressure, I would go on and get what I could get," he said. "The interceptions I threw, they came from not really paying attention to what I was doing at the time. It was the same kinds of mistakes. The pressure would get on me, I'd rush out and rush into my throws."

Miller, who now is GCCC's head coach, said he appreciated the way Marshall attacked a difficult situation. The defense was a mess. That prompted Marshall to take more risks, which often helped the team but had a negative impact on the quarterback's statistical profile.

"When we started getting down, the defense would be like: Here we go again," Miller said. "Nick is the type of guy who believes so much in himself. He thinks he can throw a 28-point touchdown in one play. He was trying to make the most amazing plays to get us back in games. As a coach, there's a fine line there. Sometimes, Nick would throw three guys off him and throw the ball 80 yards in the air to a receiver downfield. How do you tell a kid to stop doing that kind of stuff?"

Marshall improved in some important ways as the season progressed. His footwork became more orthodox, which made him a more accurate passer. He learned to look off receivers and cleaned up some minor issues with ball security.

He had no choice but to get better.

Garden City offers its residents few deterrents from the monotony of day-to-day life. That was a blessing for Marshall, who grew to savor his new routine -- going to school, preparing to play football, playing football.

"There isn't much to do. It was a good thing for me," Marshall said. "When I was at Georgia, I liked to party. There were a lot of people and you adjust to that environment, how it is. Out here, there wasn't anything to do. You can do what you're supposed to do; take care of business and get back to where you need to be."

Marshall's magnificent season was enough to offset the Broncbusters' defensive shortcomings more often than not. The team won six regular-season games and advanced to the Mississippi Bowl against Copiah-Lincoln, which Garden City won with a last-second field goal.

Marshall accounted for 451 yards and two touchdowns that day, solidifying his reputation as perhaps the most dynamic offensive player in junior-college ball.

"It never really stopped for Nick," Miller said. "He kept playing well. He continued to go throughout the season."

At season's end, Marshall trailed only Tyrik Rollison, a former Auburn player in exile at Tyler (Texas) Junior College, and Kansas State commit Jake Waters in passing yards per game.

Still, Marshall is a true runner. Rollison and Waters are not.

And so began the most hectic six weeks of Marshall's life. Texas became intrigued. Kansas State strengthened its pursuit. Indiana promised him the starting job.

And Arkansas State coach Gus Malzahn, who made Marshall his first scholarship offer after only two games, soon would find a new home at Auburn that changed Marshall's perception.

A derby was underway that wouldn't end until pen met paper.

ALSO SEE: Our first story on Marshall, 'Finding a new path'



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