Over the next few weeks, SEC Country will take Auburn football fans to Summer School. Each session will focus on one position on Auburn’s 2018 roster, finding answers from spring practice and looking ahead to what might be the biggest questions for the fall. Let’s start with the head of the class — quarterbacks.
- Jarrett Stidham (Junior)
- Malik Willis (Sophomore)
- Joey Gatewood (Freshman)
Answers from spring practice
How much will Stidham’s offseason surgery set him back?
The way Stidham threw the ball during a 7-on-7 pregame session at A-Day, it was clear he could’ve handled a bigger workload in the spring. But with a full season as a starter behind him, Stidham didn’t need the extra practice reps.
Malzahn said Stidham is ready to be “turned loose” in summer work, where he’ll get an opportunity to build his chemistry with a wide receiver group that returned everybody and added four talented freshmen. Barring an unforeseen setback this summer, Stidham should be firing on all cylinders by the fall.
Stidham didn’t participate much in spring camp, giving Willis and Gatewood the chance to fully run the offense in practices and scrimmages. While Willis’ numbers were up-and-down — especially during the A-Day Game — coaches and teammates said they saw a marked difference in how the sophomore handled the Auburn attack. Gatewood was able to showcase his impressive physical gifts in camp, but it’s clear he needs more time to develop. Fortunately for him, Auburn can give him that time with Stidham and Willis.
Will Auburn throw the ball more in 2018?
Auburn’s game plan on A-Day was as vanilla as it could get, but it’s worth noting Auburn went to the air early and often with its first-team offense. The Tigers threw more than they ran in the first half, and there seemed to be a concerted effort to run more intermediate and deep routes.
Running backs coach Tim Horton hinted last month that Auburn would be more of a passing team than it was in 2017. Pass protection among running backs was a key talking point this spring. All that adds up to more responsibility on Stidham’s shoulders.
Numbers to know
119. Last season, Stidham was just 119 yards shy of Auburn’s single-season record for passing yards, which was set by Dameyune Craig in 1997. Now consider that Stidham only threw for 79 yards in a loss to Clemson and fewer than 200 yards in three different games. Just a small amount of improvement should lead to a record-breaking season.
4.3. Stidham led the SEC in completion percentage last season at 66.5, which was 4.3 percent better than the No. 2 player on the list — South Carolina’s Jake Bentley. Stidham was incredibly accurate last season as a first-year starting quarterback. He can afford to take some more chances downfield and still be considered one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country.
13.8. Willis rushed for an average of 13.8 yards per carry last season. Take out his 67-yard sprint against Mississippi State, and his average is still above 10 yards. With Auburn replacing its top two running backs from the last two seasons, Willis could supplement the ground game with his game-breaking speed.
Questions for the fall
Can Auburn’s quarterbacks take better care of the football?
There’s a lot to like about Auburn’s quarterback room in 2018. Yet ball security has been an issue. Stidham turned the ball over quite a bit down the stretch of the 2017 season. Willis and Gatewood had their own issues with turnovers during spring scrimmages. Interceptions are surely going to come with quarterbacks who take chances downfield, but fumbles and avoidable mistakes kept Auburn’s offense from reaching its full potential late last season. If an older Stidham can show improvement in that area, he has everything he needs for a bigger 2018 campaign.
Will Willis get more snaps in 2018?
Willis wowed fans in 2017 with his dynamic speed and decision-making on run-pass options. He was handcuffed, though, with what he could do in mostly garbage-time situations. Willis has worked extensively in Auburn and back home in Atlanta on becoming a better pocket passer, as that will be a key to inheriting the throne from Stidham as early as next spring.
Auburn still needs to find a wildcat quarterback, and Willis looks like he fits the bill. Tigers fans will want to see him get opportunities to play when the main objective isn’t just to run out the clock.
Can Auburn avoid the slow offensive start with Stidham back at the helm?
Under Gus Malzahn, Auburn’s offenses have been notorious slow-starters. The Tigers usually don’t find their groove offensively until the second month of the season. That wasn’t the case in 2014, though — the last time Malzahn returned a quarterback who started the majority of the previous season. The same goes for his 2012 Arkansas State offense and his 2008 Tulsa group that led the nation in yards per game.
After the Washington game in Week 1, the schedule is tailor-made for Auburn’s offense to find its groove before October. Stidham will be the key to unlocking that.