HOOVER, Ala. — Everyone representing Auburn at SEC Media Days knew they would be asked about the Tigers quarterback situation well before they stepped into the Wynfrey Hotel on Thursday morning.
It mattered little that the group might not have been the best to provide the desired insight.
Gus Malzahn considers safety Tray Matthews a leader of the team, but especially so on defense. Braden Smith is usually too busy manhandling opponents along the offensive line to care about who’s in the pocket behind him. Even Daniel Carlson, the lone special teams representative of all the SEC teams, smiled when the topic came up.
“I’m a kicker, so I don’t really know what’s what,” Carlson joked.
And still, though worded differently throughout the day, the same question was asked repeatedly: What do you think about Jarrett Stidham?
It’s nothing new. Stidham has received growing praise since he threw for 267 yards in Auburn’s spring game. He hasn’t taken a snap in a real game on the Plains, but a notion exists that he could contend for a Heisman Trophy while putting his new school in playoff conversations.
“Obviously people have been talking about him for a long time,” Carlson said. “I think he’s a great quarterback. I think the team is really bringing him in and he’s been stepping up as a leader on the team.”
Yet for Auburn, a program that witnessed the collapse of Jeremy Johnson and watched junior college transfer John Franklin III (first on Netflix) struggle to earn opportunities, there’s a lot more to the quarterback picture. Navigating the excitement surrounding Stidham has not been an issue.
“The team is handling it well,” Matthews said. “We don’t really buy into the hype. He’s not really buying into the hype at all. He’s just coming to work every day. He’s a great leader. He’s a great asset to the team already. We’re just rolling with the punches, we’re not really worried about anything, any of the outside noise.”
The noise is loud, though, and the volume keeps getting turned up.
Auburn loves the way its schedule is set up. Malzahn is quick to point out that Alabama has to come to Jordan-Hare at the end of the season. Expectations and hopes are high.
Stidham hype isn’t going to die down soon, either. After holding the longest quarterback competition of his collegiate coaching career in 2016, Malzahn wants to name a starter much sooner when Auburn starts fall camp July 31. The hype will be at its height as temperatures rise in August.
“I mean it is what it is,” Malzahn said when speaking to media on Thursday morning. “Jarrett’s a talented guy. A lot of people think very highly of him. He’s really done a good job trying to win over his teammates with his work ethic.”
Sean White, particularly when healthy, has earned a great deal of respect in his time at Auburn, too. The Florida native was thrown into the mix as a redshirt freshman while Johnson struggled to take over for Nick Marshall. White led the way as Auburn rattled off six consecutive wins in the middle of last season.
Earning respect didn’t come easy. White suffered a broken forearm during Auburn’s opening drive in the Sugar Bowl — and kept playing. Both have valuable experience.
“It’s definitely a big question nowadays,” Smith said. “Basically the answer to that type of question is they are both really great quarterbacks … I’d say it’s going to be a battle in the fall, so whoever prevails I’ll definitely be comfortable with. I’m comfortable with both of them.”
Smith said White and Stidham, despite obvious differences, possess similar leadership characteristics. Each is doing everything in his power to be the first one on the field when Auburn takes on Georgia Southern on Sept. 2.
“They really work to get better,” Smith said. “They spend the extra time watching film, getting with the coaches and understanding the offense.”
Perhaps the most thrilling thing for Auburn is that it can turn to Stidham, White or even freshman Malik Willis, whom Malzahn said he hasn’t ruled out playing this season. The Tigers have options and the quarterback carousel that flabbergasted fans in a loss to Clemson last year is long gone.
“We have quality depth at quarterback this year,” Malzahn said. “That’s been our achilles heel really the last two years. So we’re going to fall camp with a plan. Chip (Lindsey) has a good plan to really let them compete. We don’t have a set day, set time (to name a starter), but the earlier the better.”
It’s just the beginning. Auburn players are going to get the questions until Malzahn drops the name of a starter during preseason camp, but the approach to handling the Stidham hype isn’t going to change.
For the Tigers, there are more important things to focus on.
“Our team has respect for both those guys,” Malzahn said. “Our team wants to win and not just (think about) who the quarterback is, but every position. Like I said, our team does know that we have quality depth at our position. I think that gives everybody a confidence, not just players but coaches, too.”