AUBURN, Ala. — When Sean White sees a certain type of play-call come from Auburn’s sideline, he can’t help but get excited.
The Auburn offense under Gus Malzahn has primarily relied on run-first principles, especially the zone read. But with White, who is more of a pocket passer than most recent Auburn quarterbacks, the coaching staff is finding more ways to get its starting quarterback to air it out.
“I have all the confidence in the world that when coach calls those plays, we’re going to make something happen,” White said after Auburn’s 58-7 rout of Louisiana-Monroe. “I get happy when he calls those plays.”
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White had a lot to be happy about Saturday on Homecoming. He went 14 of 17 through the air for 2 touchdowns and 239 yards — which comes out to a career-high 14.1 yards per attempt.
That new best for White was a testament to Auburn’s emphasis on throwing the ball downfield more.
In the first four games of the season, Auburn only had 4 completions of 30-plus yards. Against Louisiana-Monroe, the Tigers doubled that season total with 3 from White and a 39-yard gem from backup John Franklin III.
Auburn’s passing attack could have had more huge gains, too, if it weren’t for a couple of White misfires on the second drive of the game and a ULM penalty in the third quarter.
“We talked about that two weeks ago, that we needed to give our guys more chances downfield, and that’s been an emphasis for us,” Malzahn said. “We had one that was a pass interference and another that was close. We have to take chances down the field.”
Senior Tony Stevens and true freshman Kyle Davis — Auburn’s top two receivers so far in 2016 — each scored on 48-yard touchdown passes from White. True freshman Nate Craig-Myers recorded his first career touchdown grab on Franklin’s 39-yarder.
“It’s very important,” Stevens said. “Once we make those explosive plays, the secondary has to back up, and that gives the running back room to, you know, go out there and break free.”
That rang especially true for Auburn’s offense in an explosive third quarter that featured a pair of huge touchdowns from Franklin. Auburn had 142 passing yards in that quarter alone, which opened up the rushing attack to average a massive 8.8 yards per carry.
“I think stretching the field vertically is definitely something that you have to do as an offense, because you have to make the defense respect that,” White said. “I think we did a pretty good job of that today.”
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Taking those shots downfield will be vital for Auburn moving forward, especially in Week 6 against Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs average allowing 12 completions of 10-plus yards per game this season, which ranks among the worst in the FBS. Opposing passing attacks have scored 9 times in 4 games, averaging a healthy 245.5 yards per contest through the air.
The big-play opportunities will be there in Starkville for Auburn’s budding vertical passing game, which is starting to grow in confidence with an excited White.
“I think we’re just getting more comfortable in the games,” White said. “As the season goes on, we start to hit, like they say, midseason form. I think it’s a little bit true. I think as we get more comfortable throughout the season, it’ll keep getting better.”