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May 20, 2013

Finding a new path

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

GARDEN CITY, Kan. | Nick Marshall knows he's in the wrong place.

The reminders are everywhere at Garden City Community College, where the dual-threat quarterback has spent the past 15 months of his life. The locker room's cinder-block walls. The stadium his team shares with a high school team that draws larger crowds. The campus that includes exactly 10 buildings allocated to academic pursuits.

This is what happens when things go wrong.

Yet Marshall, a former Georgia defensive back on the cusp of an offensive revival at Auburn, knows this is exactly where he deserves to be. He fell short of expectations in Athens. He refuses to do it again.

"I lost my chance at University of Georgia and I've done what I had to do to get another shot in college football," Marshall said last week during an exclusive interview with AuburnSports.com. "It's been a crazy year, being in Garden City and adjusting to life here. I learned a lot. I'm a better person. I'm going to show it at Auburn." Mark Richt worried this would happen.

The Georgia head coach was smitten with Marshall during his days as a two-way starter Wilcox High in Rochelle, Ga. Marshall set a state record with 103 touchdown passes during his career with the Patriots and floored college recruiters with his overall array of athleticism.

Most schools wanted Marshall to play quarterback. The most outspoken supporter of Marshall's offensive future was Dameyune Craig, who was coaching quarterbacks at Florida State back then.

Yet Marshall, in an ironic twist, wasn't willing to move so far away from home. He instead agreed to follow Richt's plan, which centered around the idea that Marshall's skills were better suited to the secondary.

It was a leap of faith for Marshall, who believed he could thrive on either side of the ball. He'd never met a challenge he couldn't overcome. Why would this be any different?

Early returns were positive.

Marshall began his first fall camp as the backup at one cornerback position. He was making quick progress until a concussion forced him off the field for two weeks.

By the time he regained medical clearance, Marshall was behind in his grasp of the Bulldogs' defensive system. He nonetheless managed to appear in 13 games during the 2011 season, mostly as a special-teams element, and finished with five tackles.

His next step? Contribute on the basketball court.

Yes, Marshall was a coveted hoops recruit as well. At 6-foot-2 and a chiseled 190 pounds, he looked like a prototypical shooting guard. Unusual quickness and aerial capability helped him average 28 points per game at Wilcox County High.

Inside Stegeman Coliseum, Marshall was to be united with former nemesis Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The two battled for top billing within the Georgia prep ranks and faced each other in the 2011 state tournament.

Caldwell-Pope was victorious on both counts -- a win plus 40 points to Marshall's 16 -- and went on to become the Southeastern Conference Player of The Year in 2013.

Though Caldwell-Pope was the more refined player, largely due to concentrating solely on basketball, some believed Marshall possessed even more potential on the court.

He was faster and bouncier than everyone else his age.

Marshall's high school coach, Mark Ledford, insists that Marshall is the best athlete he's ever seen. That opinion isn't his alone. Garden City head coach Matt Miller said he's met "several" recruiters from major-conference schools who considered Marshall one of the elite athletes in any level of college athletics.

"There's a reason people always ask about Nick and talk about Nick," Miller said. "He's on another level. Even someone who knows nothing about football can watch him for two minutes and know Nick is different. There is nothing he can't do on a football field -- and believe me, I've tested him."

So why isn't Marshall a household name by now?

He made a mistake. Though Georgia never acknowledged the offense directly, Marshall reportedly was dismissed for stealing money from fellow students. It's an offense that undermines legal, moral and ethical codes, which left Richt without a choice.

He had to cut Marshall loose. That day arrived on Feb. 3, 2012. "I could see in his facial expressions that he didn't want to do it," Marshall said. "It was just a mistake that I did. He had to do his job."

The misstep left an indelible mark on Marshall's psyche. After years of wins and records and breaking through every barrier placed in front of him, he found himself at a dead stop.

His next step was into uncharted territory.

A coach who'd recruited and signed Marshall's brother to Georgia Military College heard about the snafu at Georgia. On a whim, Jeff Tatum called Marshall and offered to take him in at Garden City Community College, where he began a new job prior to the 2011 season.

A new collaboration was born.

"It was the first thing that came along," Marshall said. "I was down and depressed about what had happened. I took the first thing that was on the table."

Marshall didn't know where he was headed the day Ledford drove him to Birmingham to meet Tatum face-to-face. Marshall trusted Tatum. He badly wanted to pull away from his immediate past and start over with people who wouldn't judge him.

Tatum had faith. So did Marshall.

They hopped in a car and headed west together.

"Seventeen, eighteen hours," Marshall said. "I probably went to sleep, full sleep, three times. I woke up and we still weren't there."



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