AUBURN, Ala. — Life and football are not fair.
Expectations are always high on and off the field, and sometimes people fail to live up to the hype. It’s why Auburn struggled last season with Jeremy Johnson, the quarterback many believed to be the next big thing in the SEC. He never lived up to those expectations, however, and threw interception after interception before the pre-season Heisman Trophy contender was benched in favor of a redshirt freshman.
Life and football can be unfair, sure, but there are second chances. Johnson gets his second chance starting Saturday at Auburn’s A-Day game.
The senior might have more weight on his shoulders entering his senior season, however. He’s battling Sean White and newcomer John Franklin III, the only dual-threat quarterback on campus, for the starting job. The biggest test of the spring arrives with thousands inside Jordan-Hare Stadium watching and judging the quarterbacks Saturday.
“For John and really anybody it’s going to come down to, we need somebody to make plays,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “You’ve got to be a playmaker at quarterback to win and to win championships. You’re going to be hard-pressed to find many guys who don’t have that. Secondly, can you be a playmaker but protect the football? If you can’t protect the football you’re not going to play.”
Franklin III has struggled with turnovers and accuracy with the deep ball for the entire spring. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has spent a lot of one-on-one time with the newcomer out of East Mississippi Community College in an attempt to speed up his progression.
Meanwhile, Johnson is said to be more confident after a shaky and mentally draining junior season. White is healthy after spending the latter half of the 2015 season with nagging injuries slowing him down.
“That makes him a different person because he’s not a bad athlete,” Lashlee said of White. “Everybody remembers him pulling the ball and running 40 yards against Mississippi State, extending the plays like he did against Kentucky. I think that has helped his confidence.”
Franklin III has been billed as Nick Marshall 2.0 by some teammates. Defensive tackle Montravius Adams called him the fastest quarterback he has ever seen. Expectations, again, are high for the new face at quarterback and that might not be fair, Lashlee said.
But that’s just how life works at quarterback in the SEC.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re him or someone else,” Lashlee said. “The expectations here, they’re high. They’re high for all of us. If you can’t block those things out and focus in on doing your job, then it’s probably going to be tough on you, anyway. So honestly, he and I haven’t talked one bit about that. He’s done a nice job of really just really diving in and being really focused and trying to learn the system and do a good job and get better each day. I just say that because — and it’s no one’s fault — sometimes expectations can be put in places and it may not be unfair, right, wrong or indifferent. But just give guys a chance to go out and earn it and prove it first before maybe sometimes we — any of us — saddle them with those great expectations that now they have to live up to. Sometimes it’s fair, maybe sometimes it’s not.”
Scouting Auburn A-Day
What to expect: The three quarterbacks will be provided equal reps with the first- and second-team units, meaning the coaches would rather not tip their hand to the fans in attendance as to who they believe has a leg up in the competition. Plus, it provides the quarterbacks equal opportunities to excel or fail. Who will step up? It’s hard to tell, especially in a controlled scrimmage in which the quarterbacks will not be tackled, but past performances have shown Johnson has not necessarily had the best of days on A-Day, and perhaps we should have taken that as a sign of things to come in 2015.
Final verdict: The coaches know who would start the season opener against Clemson if it was this weekend, but they are not going to tell us. Franklin III doesn’t appear to be the starter at this point because of his multiple turnovers and inaccuracy throwing the deep ball, according to insiders at practice. He also has issues with his feet when throwing and handing off the ball, which is a big concern on film. White appears to be the most stable of the three quarterbacks exiting the spring, but that doesn’t mean he will be the starter. Either way, this is a three-way battle that will rage through August, when freshman Woody Barrett arrives on campus to join the fray.