- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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It's always nice to see guys make good on second chances.
Their bond is a unique one. Each began his career at Georgia, meaning the Bulldogs at one point had three of the SEC's current starting quarterbacks on their roster.
But whereas Aaron Murray has carved out a record-setting career at Georgia, Marshall and Mettenberger were sent packing after running into trouble off the field and seeing their careers at Georgia derailed before they ever had a chance to get started.
Mettenberger, then a redshirt freshman, was competing with Murray for the starting quarterback job in spring of 2010, and it was a tight race. Not long after the conclusion of spring practice, though, Mettenberger was dismissed after a spring break incident at a South Georgia bar with a woman. Mettenberger pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery and received probation under the state of Georgia's first offender act. He spent a season at Butler (Kan.) Community College before landing at LSU.
Marshall was never charged criminally, but he was dismissed in February 2012 for violating Georgia team rules. He and two of his teammates (who also were dismissed) reportedly were involved in stealing from other teammates. Like Mettenberger, Marshall also detoured through Kansas, at Garden City Community College, before getting a second shot, at Auburn in his case.
"I'm happy for them that they landed in a good place and are getting an opportunity to do what they hoped and dreamed about doing coming out of high school," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who will face both Mettenberger and Marshall later this season.
"I'm big on guys realizing their dreams. That's part of the reason why I coach. When you hit a major roadblock like they did, you like to hear stories of guys turning it around and doing really good things."
Rodney Garner never doubted for a second that Marshall and Mettenberger would turn it around, although he might not have predicted that both would be back in the SEC as starting quarterbacks.
Keep in mind that Marshall spent his only season at Georgia in 2011 as a cornerback.
Garner, in his first season as Auburn's associate head coach and defensive coordinator, was a member of Georgia's staff when the Bulldogs signed Marshall and Mettenberger.
"Nick and Zach are both examples that one mistake as a kid doesn't define who you are," said Garner, a 24-year coaching veteran in the SEC. "They're both good kids that just made bad decisions.
"I think back to when I played. If I had gotten caught doing some of the things I did at their age, I might not be where I am today. It does me good to see both of those kids get their lives back on track."
Mettenberger grew up just outside Athens in Watkinsville, Ga., and his mother, Tammy, still works in the Georgia football office. His dismissal was especially hard on everybody in the Bulldogs family.
"I've known Zach since he was 5," Garner said. "I know what kind of kid he is, and when you take second chances on kids, you've got to be sure there's not something you're missing. In both Zach and Nick's case, anybody who knows those kids will tell you that they were raised right and taught the difference between right and wrong. They weren't bad kids."
That's why, when Auburn was looking for a quarterback after Gus Malzahn was hired, Garner went to his new boss and assured him that Marshall was made of the right stuff.
"With some of the things Auburn has been through the last few years -- the robbery, the shootings and some of the things that have gone on -- we had to be sure," Garner said. "But I told Gus that Nick was a kid that I had at my house, and I would have him at my house any time. What he did just wasn't indicative of the kind of kid he is."
Malzahn didn't need to be sold on Marshall as a player. Even before Marshall played a down at Garden City last season, Malzahn offered him a scholarship while still the coach at Arkansas State.
By that time, Marshall was convinced that he wanted to play quarterback, and he wanted to do so in the SEC. He originally was recruited to Georgia as a quarterback after setting the state record for touchdown passes with 103 at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Ga.
But, during the recruiting process, Marshall was wrestling with the decision as to whether he wanted to play football or basketball in college. He played AAU hoops with former Georgia star Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and was equally dynamic on the hardwood. While Marshall was going back and forth, Georgia took a commitment from another quarterback, Christian LeMay, and the program was going to sign only one that year.
Eventually, Marshall decided it might be best for him to play defense in college, making it easier to play two sports. When Marshall's coach at Wilcox County, Mark Ledford, informed Richt that Marshall had decided to play defense, Georgia reopened its recruitment of Marshall, this time as a cornerback.
"That's the thing about Nick. He can do whatever you want him to do and do it well," Ledford said. "He even kicked off some for us, but I had to find him some rest. He played 100 percent of the snaps on offense and defense."
In one game against Herschel Walker's old high school, Johnson County, Marshall passed for four touchdowns, ran for four touchdowns and had an interception for a touchdown that was called back because of a penalty.
"He could have played a lot of different positions in college, but, just like when he's on the basketball court as a point guard and can see the whole court, he's got that same vision in football," Ledford said. "He sees things a lot of people don't."
For Garner, seeing Marshall and Mettenberger back on an SEC field together Saturday night, albeit on opposite sidelines, will be heartwarming.
"It's a feel-good story, two kids who stumbled, but didn't stay down," Garner said. "They got back up, and that's what this game teaches you."
It's a huge test for Marshall, his first road game of the season after leading Auburn on a clutch game-winning drive last week against Mississippi State that was capped by his 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds to play.
"We saw Nick do that so many times when he was in high school," Ledford said. "When it's time to go win a game, he just has that extra sense about him.
"The best thing is that it's about what he's doing now and not something that happened in his past."
The same goes for Mettenberger, who's one of the hottest quarterbacks in the country. He has thrown nine touchdown passes and no interceptions and leads the SEC in passing efficiency through his first three games.
Garner doesn't relish having to go up against Mettenberger, who vowed when he signed with LSU that he would restore his image and rebuild the trust people had in him before his misstep off the field.
Not only has he done that but he has put himself in a position to play this game for a living.
"Zach's a pro, an NFL quarterback, and we knew it when he was at Georgia," Garner said. "There's only one kid I've seen in my 24 years of doing this that had a stronger arm than Zach, and that was Matthew Stafford. He has a cannon and has really matured and turned into the player we all knew he would be.
"I don't think anybody's surprised."
• • •
It's been a bad week (actually, a brutal week) for Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, and all eyes are on him now to see if he can survive. The outing of his F-bomb tirade against the Nebraska fans two years ago, coupled with his dismissive reaction to Nebraska legend Tommie Frazier's critical comments, don't play well when you're coming off a 20-point home loss to UCLA.
Listen, Pelini's a good football coach. He just tends to have zero finesse when dealing with many external elements of the program. Although the way he reached out to young cancer patient Jack Hoffman was as touching as it gets.
Even before this season, there were rumblings close to the Big Ten championship game a year ago that Pelini might be looking around. It was floated to Arkansas and Auburn that he might be interested in those jobs.
The key stretch for him comes in November when the Huskers play Northwestern at home, Michigan on the road and Michigan State at home in successive weeks.
Even if Pelini survives, you can't help but wonder how fractured his relationship there is with the Nebraska fan base and if he wants to be there long-term.
• • •
Emotion can be an unpredictable thing, but you've got to hand it to UCLA's players and coaches with the way the Bruins responded to the tragic death of teammate Nick Pasquale, who was killed after being struck by a vehicle.
The team attended his memorial service on Sunday. At Nebraska, players wore No. 36 patches on their jerseys in memory of Pasquale. Quarterback Brett Hundley admitted there was an onslaught of emotion to start the game, and UCLA fell behind 21-3 midway through the second quarter, but ripped off 38 unanswered points to win 41-21.
That type of resolve tells you a lot about this team and the job Jim Mora Jr. has done. It's a program clearly on the rise, but the Bruins got the short end of the stick on the schedule this season. They have to play at Stanford and at Oregon in back-to-back weeks on Oct. 19 and Oct. 26.
• • •
Alabama has made a living under Saban by playing a lot of man coverage with the likes of cornerbacks Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner, DeQuan Menzie, Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson, all of whom were selected in the NFL draft.
The jury is still out on this group of Crimson Tide cornerbacks. You know they'll get better. That's just a trademark with Saban's players, especially defensive backs, which is his forte. But there might not be a shut-down, premier cornerback on this defense similar to past years under Saban.
• • •
It looks like junior quarterback Justin Worley will again be Tennessee's starter at quarterback Saturday at Florida after coach Butch Jones re-opened the quarterback competition this week.
The reality is that people need to play better around Worley if the Vols are going to snap an eight-game losing streak to the Gators. The second quarterback in would probably be redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman, who's more mobile than Worley.
But down the road, don't be surprised if true freshman Riley Ferguson emerges as the guy. The Tennessee coaches like his quick release, his arm strength and the edge in which he plays the game. They just don't want to throw him out there before he's ready.
• • •
Who needs veteran coaches, right?
Texas Tech is off to a 3-0 start and ranked No. 25. Looking down the Red Raiders' schedule, it's not out of the realm to think that they could be 7-0 heading into that Oct. 26 game at Oklahoma.
The "old guy" on the staff is defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt, who's 47. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury is just 34 and is one of seven coaches on the staff under the age of 40.
There won't be any AARP applications floating around the Texas Tech coaches' offices any time soon.
• • •
For all the talk about the SEC suddenly becoming an offensive league, Florida's defense might be one of the best in the country.
Coach Will Muschamp still wants to see the Gators give up fewer big plays, but good luck in converting on third down against these guys. They've allowed two third-down conversions in 24 attempts this season. And, yes, they lead the country in that department.
• • •
One of the players who's helped himself the most in the eyes of NFL scouts through the first three games is LSU junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson, who's played well enough that he could be an early-entrant candidate for the NFL draft. LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said in the spring that Ferguson was poised for a big season, and to this point, Ferguson has been even more productive than his more heralded teammate at tackle, Anthony Johnson. Ferguson leads the Tigers with 16 total tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss.
Georgia originally signed three players who are current starting quarterbacks in the SEC. Auburn's Nick Marshall and LSU's Zach Mettenberger are making the best of second chances at other schools.