AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s game against Arkansas State last weekend gave the Tigers something far more important than a win: clarity.
Sophomore quarterback Sean White is finally ‘the guy’ on the Plains.
White emerged in the Tigers’ 51-14 victory against the Red Wolves, earning his coaches’ and teammates’ confidence with his poised career performance (244 yards, 3 TDs).
Yet as Texas A&M travels to Auburn for the start of Southeastern Conference play this weekend, Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin isn’t taking any chances.
He’ll prepare his defense to face White. He’ll also be ready for anyone else head coach Gus Malzahn could play at quarterback.
“We’re prepping for the system,” Sumlin said. “There are similarities in both quarterbacks, obviously there’s more of a mobile component to one of them, but all of them are capable. Particularly last weekend I thought all of them threw the ball extremely well.”
Malzahn took criticism after sporadically rotating White, senior Jeremy Johnson and junior college transfer John Franklin III (and two running backs) at the position against No. 2 Clemson in Week 1. Immediately after Auburn’s 19-13 loss, he admitted his strategic game plan had been ineffective (to say the least).
White started and commanded the Auburn offense for the majority of the Tigers’ win last weekend. Franklin didn’t play much, but was the team’s third-best rusher, gaining 75 yards on just four attempts.
The offensive-minded Malzahn said he has no plans to move Franklin, who’s known for his dynamic run capabilities, to another position, though.
“He’s going to keep practicing and keep trying to improve.” Malzahn said in the week leading up to A&M. “And do what he can to help our team.”
So could Malzahn decide to use two (or more) quarterbacks at another point this year, and more importantly, is it a viable option?
“Oh no doubt,” Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer said. “Of course. It depends on the two you have. I actually love having more than one quarterback, I know people say, ‘Well, it causes problems.’ I like to have three to be honest with you. I don’t see the problem like everyone else maybe does.”
Of course, Meyer is one of the only head coaches in recent history to have success with a multi-quarterback system. He replaced Chris Leak (his starter) with Tim Tebow (more of a ground threat) in certain situations at Florida during the 2006 season, in which the Gators won a BCS national title.
Leak and Tebow had different skill sets, but the Gators season unfolded successfully largely because of who the two players were off of the field.
“They were two different people from very strong families and didn’t complain and whine or cause internal issues,” Meyer said. “Obviously it’s the one position that everyone in the stadium knows who it is. And these were highly recruited guys in Chris Leak and Tim Tebow — two of the most selfless guys I’ve ever been around— and (they) put the team ahead of themselves and they understood why we were doing it.”
George Whitfield played quarterback under Jim Tressel at Youngstown State. He’s worked with several well-known college and pro QBs and contributes to ESPN’s College Gameday.
The quarterback guru, as he’s known, believes rotating multiple quarterbacks early in the season usually means the race is still going — performance dictates order (as White’s did last weekend).
Whitfield also sees how using multiple quarterbacks could potentially be effective.
“If the rotation serves a tactical purpose, (like it did when Texas played with a primary passer and a primary runner against Notre Dame in Week 1)” Whitfield said. “That situation builds a ‘tag team’ mentality. Everyone hits the ground each day with a role. And with that, purpose and respect.”
Sumlin, who complimented the Auburn quarterbacks’ passing skills, might be confused about the roles of White and Franklin, but the Tigers understand completely.
Franklin didn’t throw a pass last weekend —he broke for a 41-yard run in the fourth quarter — giving the Franklin-White duo a similar appearance to the 2006 Leak-Tebow combo.
“(Franklin) is fast,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “So I thought he was more comfortable in his time in this game than he was in the first game, which was good. So just continue to try to bring him along. I know he’s confident.”
Leak comprehends the maturity necessary to execute within this type of system. Quarterbacks are forced to make quick, consistent decisions at a high level.
“I think that was one of the best things about how Tim and I handled the situation,” Leak said. “You always want to play and you always want to play more, regardless of what position you play in football you always want to play more. You always want to be out on the field competing and in the atmosphere and everything. You have to have two guys who are mature enough to handle it, and it’s tough having multiple guys behind center, it’s tough.”
Part of the challenge is getting in a rhythm and picking up on the flow of the game. Players can watch opposing defenses and try to get a better idea of what’s going on from the sideline.
Until they continually line up alongside their teammates — understanding how the team is doing, how their teammates specifically are playing, and how the emotions are in the game — pieces will be missing.
Still, Leak believes if executed correctly, it’s not impossible to win with two quarterbacks.
A lot of the responsibility falls on a team’s head coach, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, who have to manage the reps, plays and roles of each player.
“If each guy knows his role and knows his package, then yeah, I think it can work,” Leak said. “Because then you can find that rhythm and find that consistency a little bit sooner rather than later in the football game.”
Just having the possibility of mixing up quarterbacks on an opponent during conference play could be an advantage — Sumlin felt uncertain at some level and Texas A&M dedicated at least some time on Auburn’s potential backups.
“The fact is you only get one chance to surprise people,” Leak said. “So if people don’t know who your quarterback is, that can be, can be an advantage. It can also turn back and bite you, too.”
Regardless of who starts or plays quarterback for Auburn, or when Malzahn could possibly bewilder an opponent, it will be challenging to play multiple quarterbacks.
And that’s not something to mess around with.
“The quarterback role is so important. It’s such an important role — obviously in football — but also in all of sports as well,” Leak said. “It’s so huge. To me it’s the toughest position in all of sports because you carry so much weight and importance to the outcome of the football game.”