May 11, 2016
ATLANTA — Tempo is one of the staples of Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn‘s offense, so it makes sense that he would be in a little more of hurry than most to name a starting quarterback.
In each of the five quarterback battles Malzahn has been a part of either as Auburn’s offensive coordinator (2009-2011) or head coach (2013-present), he has named a starting quarterback prior to the season. The latest he has named a starting quarterback was as Auburn’s coordinator in 2011, when he named Barrett Trotter the No. 1 guy on Aug. 18, according to the school.
Expect the current quarterback battle taking place among Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and junior college transfer John Franklin III to follow the same path.
“We’re going to name somebody,” Malzahn said prior to his Tiger Trek event at the College Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday. “Hopefully sooner rather than later once we start fall camp.”
Johnson has the most experience running the offense. After serving as Nick Marshall’s primary backup and starting two games in his stead, he entered the 2015 season with a ton of hype. But he threw six interceptions in the first three games of the season, was benched in favor of Sean White for the fourth game of the year against Mississippi State and Auburn played “musical quarterbacks” for the rest of the season.
White wasn’t bad in a pinch.
The 2013 Elite 11 camp MVP and 2014 Under Armour All-American Game MVP completed 58 percent of his passes (83-of-143) and showed off the accuracy that made him such a highly decorated prospect at times as a redshirt freshman.
But the presence of Franklin—a former Florida State Seminole who served as “Nick Marshall” on the FSU scout team leading up to the 2014 BCS Championship Game between the Seminoles and Tigers—makes a two-quarterback system a possibility again in 2016.
Consider that “Plan B.”
“We really want to have a starter,” Malzahn said. “We have ways that we’ll put our guys in situations for somebody to step up. Like Nick Marshall a couple of years ago. It was pretty equal for two or three weeks, but we decided to go ‘live’ one time and he won the job that day. Hopefully we won’t get to a point where our quarterbacks have to go live in fall camp.”
Auburn did make its primary quarterback contenders go live twice during spring practice, and it was something that benefited Franklin—who’s very similar to Marshall as an edge threat who can make defenders miss in space.
The only chance the public got to see the former East Mississippi Community College backup this spring was in the spring game, when quarterbacks were whistled down anytime a defender took a breath anywhere near them.
“I wish I played ‘live’ today,” Franklin said after Auburn’s spring game. “I could have gotten some other stuff done.”
Malzahn‘s trend and statement suggest that he’ll pick a guy in mid-August and roll with him. But with national runner-up Clemson looming in Week 1—by far, the most difficult season opener he has faced at Auburn—Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney isn’t ruling anything out.
“Still don’t know a lot about them offensively because we’re not sure who the quarterback is, but we’ll continue to prepare for what they do,” he said at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl Challenge. “Openers are always tough because there are new faces on both sides with a lot of unknowns. You have a long time to prepare for one game. A tough opener for us, no doubt.”
Malzahn has made a change in how he approaches life as a head coach. Instead of taking more of a CEO role, he was more hands-on this spring with all of his offensive players—but specifically with his quarterbacks.
“In the spring, I was pretty hands-on with the entire offense,” he said. “Kind of back to what I used do with the past. Tried to get a really good feel for [Franklin], but at the same time, make sure that I’m part of the everyday function of the offense.”
Because of that change, Malzahn‘s trend of naming starters well before the season starts, and this being such a critical year for Malzahn‘s professional life, expect him to stay true to his roots and let the offense grow behind one player during the final few weeks of fall camp.
With White still relatively inexperienced and Franklin still learning, unquestioned first-team snaps are imperative for the 2016 Tigers.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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