AUBURN, Ala. — There was a noticeable shift in Jordan-Hare Stadium when Auburn quarterback Sean White stepped onto the field to start the second half against Vanderbilt last Saturday.
After some of the loudest applause of the day died down, the sophomore — reportedly sidelined with a shoulder injury during the week of practice beforehand — led a scoring drive ending with receiver Darius Slayton’s first career touchdown.
On a day where little was “going right” for the Tigers, White’s influence almost looked like a magic trick, igniting Auburn’s special teams unit and defense. Both groups clicked after a frustrating first half.
Junior kicker Daniel Carlson, who hadn’t been pleased with his kickoffs in recent games, drilled a 65-yard kickoff that registered as a touchback. Kevin Steele’s defense jogged onto the field and the plays that followed were broken up by a trio of defensive backs (Tray Matthews, Johnathan Ford and Carlton Davis).
“You’ve seen it before. Sometimes quarterbacks have that effect,” Malzahn said. “You put him out there on the field in the second half and it was like a new energy on the sideline. We got back in our groove and that says a lot about your quarterback being the leader of the team. If you have a good team, your quarterback is usually one of your leaders.”
White’s position as the leader of Auburn’s offense started when the redshirt freshman was thrown into the starting role last season. Though the Boca Raton, Fla., native gained respect by battling injuries throughout the year, he threw more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (1).
This season’s start was chaotic. Out of several concerns for a young Auburn team, quarterback ranked near the top of the list.
White won the longest quarterback competition of Malzahn’s collegiate career during preseason camp. He steadily began evolving as a leader through each game. His transformation mirrored Auburn’s success.
“I would say a lot of the guys on the team sort of recognized early on that we were going to be able to do great things this season,” offensive lineman Robert Leff said. “And obviously there were question marks the first week or two, but everybody could tell in the program that we were going to be able to do great things. We just needed to smooth out the bumps and figure out how to make everything work together first.”
The quarterback’s guidance is where the story of Auburn turnaround starts
Despite Auburn’s youth and inexperience, the authority of White and several teammates is the secret to the season’s success.
Multiple leaders have developed, finding their voice and focus as they uncovered more talent and playmaking abilities. The Tigers have won six straight games and earned a No. 9 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings.
“It’s the leadership of our players. That’s really where it starts,” Malzahn said. “We went through a little bit of a storm early. Coaches are used to dealing with that. They’re more mature in all that. The leadership of our team, they never budged. They didn’t listen to any kind of negativity. They just kept working. We never had a bad practice, we never had a practice where you said, ‘Oh, no.’ It’s our players, it’s our leadership, they deserve the credit.”
While the quarterback-led comeback against the Commodores quieted doubters on the Plains and reassured others in the program, it may have meant most to White.
“His teammates have a lot of respect for him, his coaches do too,” Malzahn said. “That’ll help him moving forward, too. That had to feel good for him, too.”