Auburn less sure at QB than at this time last year
Few programs in the SEC have a quarterback competition this spring as wide open as the one at Auburn, where four players will work with the first-team offense and perhaps get a chance to win the starting job.
That wasn’t the case a year ago for the Tigers. Jeremy Johnson was supposed to be the guy.
After playing so well in a (limited) reserve role in 2013-14 — including a passer efficiency rating of 198.4 — he was on the cusp of stardom once he rose to the top of the depth chart in 2015. He made the watch list for the Maxwell Award. Ditto for the Davey O’Brien Award. He was a preseason All-SEC selection in several publications.
In Las Vegas, Johnson’s odds for winning the Heisman Trophy were originally off the board. Then he made an appearance at 16-to-1, which eventually got bet down to 10-to-1. Even Dak Prescott could only get 12-to-1.
But then the season started. Johnson threw three interceptions in a narrow escape of Louisville. He was picked off twice in a nail-biting win over FCS foe Jacksonville State. After getting smoked 45-21 at LSU — throwing another INT in the process — Auburn pulled the plug.
Things got so bad that SEC Network color commentator Matt Stinchcomb questioned whether the Tigers quarterback has something physically wrong with him (check the audio in the first Vine below).
While he returned to the lineup later in the year, he was only able to beat Texas A&M and Idaho. He was ineffective in losses to Georgia and Alabama.
Johnson finished the campaign with 10 touchdown passes against 7 interceptions. Rating? 129. Coach Gus Malzahn’s system prefers the QB to also be a runner, but Johnson averaged a measly 2.9 yards per carry.
This is an offense not too far removed from leading the nation in rushing. With Nick Marshall under center and Tre Mason in the backfield, Auburn ran for 328.3 yards per game in 2013 on the way to an SEC title and an appearance in the BCS Championship Game. Marshall was a terrifying dual threat in Malzahn’s hurry-up scheme. Mason became a Heisman finalist — if not for Winston to Benjamin, they’d have rings.
Marshall, by the way, wasn’t a gifted passer. He could run and throw at Malzahn’s frenetic pace, though. Johnson wasn’t able to do so. His small sample size playing behind Marshall proved to be a fallacy.
“It probably was a bit much for a player who had only two starts to his name prior to the beginning of last season,” Ryan Black told Saturday Down South. He covers the Tigers for Auburn Undercover.
The measurables are there. Johnson is 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. He runs very fast in a straight line during conditioning drills. He scored 6 TDs on the ground, so he’s got a nose for the end zone. However, this isn’t about measureables. It’s about swagger.
“He’s certainly capable of playing that well,” Black said. “Go back and watch the 2014 opening half versus Arkansas, or the times he came in during the 2013 season for a play or two. The physical talent is definitely there. He just has to get his confidence back mentally.”
If Malzahn is telling the truth, Johnson has a chance to be atop the depth chart again. All he has to do is be the best QB in camp. But fans are fickle. Many supporters on The Plains want to turn the page.
“If Johnson exits spring as the starter for the second straight season, there will undoubtedly be a collective groan from the fan base,” Black said. “Part of that is because of how badly Johnson performed last season. The other reason is they believe, rightly or not, that there are better options available.”
gritty and gutty
Sean White is one of those options.
More of a traditional passer at 6-foot and 200 pounds, White took over for Johnson once Malzahn decided to make a switch, although he didn’t secure the gig for good. Even in Auburn’s 31-10 mauling of Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl, White was only 8-of-13 through the air for 102 yards. He failed to record a TD and threw two picks, plus his one rushing attempt netted no gain.
The door is open for Tyler Queen, who is coming off a redshirt, to enter the fray. In addition to Queen, there is a lot of noise surrounding sub-4.4 speedy JUCO transfer John Franklin III.
While Johnson seemed to shrink in the face of pressure last year, White showed a lot of fight during Auburn’s downward spiral. If not for injuries, he might already be anointed the No. 1 quarterback.
“White’s strengths are his accuracy as a passer and his on-the-field competitiveness with a strong desire to win,” said Mark Murphy, who is the publisher of AUTigers.com. “If he had not suffered a knee injury against Arkansas, which was followed by a foot injury, the Tigers would have likely produced a better record last season.”
According to Murphy, while Malzahn’s offense tends to perform at maximum capacity with a signal caller that can run the ball as well as he can throw it, being fleet of foot is not a prerequisite. It’s a bonus.
“Running is not White’s strength,” he said, “but when healthy he has enough quickness to gain yardage on the zone-read plays. In 2009 as Auburn’s offensive coordinator, Malzahn had success with Chris Todd at quarterback, who was very limited as a runner, so the coach is comfortable with that style of QB.”
It’s one thing to be comfortable. Being confident is another feeling. When Malzahn’s troops are marching and he’s pumping his fist after scores, that’s confidence. It’s not comfort.
“I think the dual-threat guy is the long-term plan for his offense,” said Murphy.
we can rebuild him
Queen has more potential as a runner-slash-passer. Originally a three-star signee from the class of 2015, the 6-foot-1, 241-pounder can really go for a kid his size.
Three stars or not, Queen had his fair share of offers from powerhouse programs. Fellow SEC West rivals Alabama and Texas A&M were among them. Outside the conference, former Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris — now the head coach at SMU — was smitten with Queen on the recruiting trail. Few teams ask their QB to do more both running and throwing than the defending ACC champions. Just ask Deshaun Watson.
But health is an issue for Queen. A two-sport star during his prep career, he experienced elbow problems as a baseball player. He could only fight through the pain so long and went under the knife in September.
“The big question concerning Queen is how quickly he will be back to full speed in his recovery from Tommy John surgery,” Murphy said. “He has been throwing a football for several months now, but it will be surprising if he is allowed to have contact in spring training.”
If his elbow is healthy, Queen might never get a better chance. The team may be hesitant to go back to Johnson. White seems to be caught in a square-peg-round-hole situation. There’s no time like the present.
“If none of the other quarterbacks emerge from spring drills as the clear leader, and if Queen is back to 100 percent physically in August, he could make a serious move in the competition to be the starter,” said Murphy.
Johnson and White combined for just 172 rushing yards in 2015. The two years prior, Marshall rushed for 1,068 as a junior and 798 more as a senior. Typically, a passer that can run opens up the aerial attack.
“Queen put up impressive numbers in high school as a passer, but he is an all-around good athlete who is very effective running the football,” Murphy said. “His running ability would be an advantage for Queen when comparing him with Johnson or White.”
Malzahn enjoyed his highest highs as a playcaller in 2010 with Cam Newton and 2013 with Marshall.
Good luck finding another Newton. He’s once in a generation. It’s more realistic to find another Marshall.
The Tigers might have one in Franklin. A three-star recruit out of Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) South Plantation High School, he probably bit off more than he can chew when he first attended Florida State. Little more than a scout-team contributor, the Seminoles toyed with the idea of making him a full-time receiver. After a productive year under center at East Mississippi Community College, Franklin is back in the FBS ranks.
Considering FSU coach Jimbo Fisher’s reputation, just getting recruited by him as a passer is a good sign. After all, he corraled two of the last three national title-winning QBs in Jameis Winston and Jake Coker.
“He’s going to get a chance to win the job,” Malzahn said Feb. 4 according to Phillip Marshall of 247 Sports. “Our quarterback position is wide open. He came in here wanting a chance to win the job.”
What separates Franklin from Johnson, White and Queen are his wheels. As a matter of fact, he’s not even classified as a quarterback on the roster at the team’s official website. He’s listed as an “athlete.”
“John Franklin has got great speed,” said Malzahn. “We think he throws the ball well. He’s familiar with our offense, so we’re definitely excited about what he can do.”
Marshall took a circuitous route to Auburn, too. He spent a season at Georgia as a defensive back before a one-year stint in junior college at QB. If the formula worked with Marshall, it might work with Franklin.
“I think he’s fit in very well,” Malzahn said. “He’s a very likable young man. Something about our team is they’re very welcoming. The guys that come in, they just embrace them, so I think he’s very comfortable and fitting in very well.”
four’s a crowd
It’s a diverse quartet. Johnson looks like Tarzan but played like Jane. White showed guts yet has limited upside. Queen’s arm is surgically repaired. Franklin has never thrown a big-boy pass.
To make matters even more interesting, the quartet becomes a quintet once summer gets here.
That’s when the Tigers will welcome the arrival of Woody Barrett, a four-star prospect from Winter Garden (Fla.) West Orange High School who signed in February. Already well developed physically at 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds, Auburn targeted Barrett almost immediately after Malzahn accepted the head coaching job in 2012.
Barrett could have gone just about anywhere. In the SEC alone, he had offers from Alabama, Kentucky, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee. Other suitors included Ohio State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Texas.
“Woody is extremely talented and a hard worker,” West Orange coach Bob Head said. “He is basically a running back playing quarterback. He is tough and very physical. He is capable of taking over a game with his arm or legs. He can throw a football 70 yards and is taking his game to a new level.
“This past season, he progressed as a QB and led our team to the (state) semifinals and a 13-2 record.”
Even though he had household-name coaches from all over the country vying for his services, Barrett only took one official visit. It was to Auburn. Apparently, he wanted Malzahn as badly as Malzahn wanted him.
“Woody is a great young man who makes everyone around him better,” said Head. “He has a positive attitude and is a hard worker. I know the sky is the limit with him.”
Most importantly, player and program seem like a perfect fit. On National Signing Day, according to the Orlando Sentinel, Barrett told reporters that Auburn pursued him “since ninth grade and never let go.”
“We ran a spread offense with a lot of run and pass,” Head said. “Woody did awesome in it, and it was kinda like Auburn’s.”
make or break
Malzahn quickly became one of the rising stars in the coaching profession, as he was less than a minute away from a crystal football in Year 1. But he lost five games in Year 2, and then six more in Year 3.
This is Year 4 for Malzahn, and his seat has to be getting awfully warm.
Remember, he replaced Gene Chizik. Two years after bringing a national championship to Auburn in 2010 — the school’s first since 1957 — Chizik was deep-sixed following a 3-9 disaster in 2012. That has to be an intimidating precedent for Malzahn, whose offense hasn’t been the same since a fairy-tale turn through the SEC in 2013.
There is no shortage of choices for the Tigers at the game’s most important position in 2016. Whether Malzahn picks the right one could determine his fate at Auburn beyond this coming season.