After an up-and-down start to his Auburn career, Jarrett Stidham has begun to reveal exactly who is: the ideal quarterback for Gus Malzahn’s Fun-N-Gun offense.
Stidham has shone in SEC play. He’s thrown 9 touchdowns to 1 interception, with a passer rating of 170. All while averaging more than 10 yards per attempt.
Stidham and the Auburn offense face their stiffest test of the season this week at home to Georgia. Tangibly, the Bulldogs defense is smarter and faster than the young-buck LSU Tigers who ran Auburn off the field in the second half of the team’s only conference loss.
Intangibly: Auburn’s season is on the line.
Let’s go into the Film Room to see where Stidham, the Baylor transfer, has excelled this season, as well as what he must do to pull off the upset this weekend.
Making downfield throws outside the numbers
The Kirby Smart-Mel Tucker combination has constructed one hell of a defensive group (shoutout to Mark Richt for, you know, getting the players on campus). Georgia’s defense ranks 18th in the nation in S&P+ and third in points per game.
To beat this Georgia defense, you must hit throws outside the numbers. Smart’s pattern-matching principles demand it.
Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on your fan allegiance), Stidham is among the most accurate and best deep-ball throwers in the country. His 130.1 passer rating on throws of 20 yards or more sits at eighth in the country, per Pro Football Focus. He’s racked up 619 yards, 5 TDs, and no interceptions on such throws.
Most of that’s on the quarterback.
Stidham has an “NFL arm.” There’s a common misnomer around that phrase. It’s typically elicited by long bombs down the field. But having a next-level arm is not purely about velocity. Dumping the ball far down the field and letting someone run underneath it is no great skill. In fact, if you have the natural gifts, it’s one of the easiest throws in the sport.
An NFL arm is about modulating trajectories and velocities to different levels of the field.
Does that mean ripping a throw from the far hash to a boundary comeback? Sure. But the more nuanced throws, the so-called “bucket throws” (named by the infamous Al Davis), are what separate a power thrower from someone with a legitimate NFL arm. Can they throw a ball to any spot on a field with the arc of an NBA 3-pointer?
To every level of the field, Stidham is able to mix up his velocity when needed. If he needs to rip a ball into a tight window, he’s got that one. If it’s dropping a ball between a deep safety and a corner along the sideline in order to beat a cover-2 look, he’s got that one, too. And if he needs to beat 1-on-1 outside coverage with a back-shoulder throw, as he will against Georgia, then, yeah, he’s happy to serve that one up on a platter:
Stidham has an NFL arm.
He also has an effortless, efficient, repeatable delivery. The ball leaps out his hand.
And he’s become a more advanced passer from his young Baylor days. He’s now controlling defenders with his eyes, and he gets the ball out so quickly that they cannot recover.
He’ll need to harness all of that against this Georgia group.
Some of the creative mid screens and slip screens Auburn has used to juice Stidham’s numbers and get its playmakers in space won’t work against this Georgia defense. It’s too big, too fast, and too smart.
Georgia’s defense has jarring team speed. It’s that sit back in your chair, take a deep sigh, “ohhh, boy” type speed. Visceral speed. The kind you’re accustomed to seeing on a field in Tuscaloosa.
An “athletes in space” offense works upon the assumption your athlete can win 1-on-1 consistently. When they can’t – see the second half against LSU – the system bog downs, as long as those opposing athletes arrive in the right places at the right time.
Malzahn and new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey (He’s 100 percent, absolutely, calling all of the plays, and designing the game script. What? He is. Stop laughing.) have adjusted some of the head coach’s core elements. They’ve tweaked some of the option and run-pass option (RPOs) designs to indulge the threat of Stidham’s arm, while conforming to Malzahn’s overall philosophy: outflank and out-leverage.
It’s tough to outflank this Georgia outfit. The use of a late rotating safety gives the defense a secondary wall against the run, quick passes, or any kind of screen.
The Bulldogs run a style of coverage that forces opposing quarterbacks to complete throws deep down the field. Cornerbacks are left out on islands reading the releases of receivers before opting to convert from zone to man coverage – they convert to man against vertical releases. And a safety, who starts in a two-deep look, rotates down toward the line of scrimmage.
That often puts opposing coaches in a bind. They know what they’re getting if they send a treasure trove of vertical releases: Oh, that will definitely be man coverage, so let’s attack this way.
Not so fast, my friend. By definition, those releases take longer. And you have to set up the play design and get the ball out of the quarterback’s hand before a raft of long-limbed, super-fast, super-good, pass rushers come charging into the backfield.
What was once the Alabama conundrum now also takes residence in Athens, Ga.
The Malzahn-Lindsey combo will do a couple of things to help out their quarterback. The Tigers like to run two-receiver stacks, so that one receiver can get a free release off the line of scrimmage.
It’s also tough for the defense to run more complex pattern-matching principles against a two-man stack or three-receiver bunch set. Coverages become more basic. Defenses man up, or they play drop zones.
Moreover, there’s hope that players in the middle of the field will bite on any kind of early action or play fake. Auburn runs a ton of its RPOs from the same two-man stacked look – typically inside zone tagged with a flat screen.
Guys in the middle of the field start to key on one of those two things: either the ball is handed off for an inside run or chucked outside for a quick pass.
Auburn burned Mississippi State for an explosive play by initially faking the flat screen before spinning its receiver downfield.
Stidham hit the throw. A big pass play, outside the numbers.
That’s an impossibly good throw.
Then there’s the team’s use of those en-vogue deep dropbacks from the shotgun. The idea: If we need to buy more time, and our quarterback has a big arm, let’s just drop him further from the line of scrimmage.
It’s a trend across college football. SEC fans saw it with Lane Kiffin and then-freshman Jalen Hurts last season.
With an arm like Stidham’s, dropping deeper buys receivers more time to uncover downfield without disrupting the route combination. And it grants the offensive line more leeway, one that regularly put its quarterback in harm’s way.
Five-step timing drops, throwing off play-action, or a specific design in which Auburn knows its receivers or offensive line needs an extra couple of beats to win, the Tigers use them all.
Here’s one of the traditional downfield timing concepts Lindsey was brought to the Plains to install, dressed up with all Malzahn’s window-dressing goodness.
Expect to see at least one home-run shot from a deep dropback out of the shotgun called in Auburn’s 15-20 play script on Saturday.
The rest will likely be dictated by the battle up front and how much time the receiving corps needs to separate from Georgia’s glue coverage. The lack of a consistent pass rush should give Stidham the chance to stand in and wait from more traditional dropbacks.
Georgia does not have an elite pass-rushing unit. It’s good. But it’s no Clemson, which dropped Stidham 11 times and hit him countless others early in the season.
For as good as this Bulldogs defense has been, it hasn’t been overly disruptive.
Georgia ranks a surprising 101st in passing-down sack rate and 112th in defensive line havoc rate, per Football Study Hall. It’s a big, fast front. And it’s as assignment-sound as any in the country. But the group, at least so far, hasn’t wrecked the game off the snap.
Auburn’s offensive line has struggled for much of the season. Stidham has suffered. He has been sacked 21 times, hit an extra 12, and hurried 39 times just for good measure, per College Football Film Room.
Something has to give.
The Tigers group is getting better, however. Austin Golson has taken over at left tackle for blue-chip sophomore Prince Tega Wanogho. Golson has played with a better anchor. He has yet to give up a sack this season.
The group must hold its own this weekend. And the Auburn staff has to unload all the creative designs it’s used to this point to help Stidham through play design.
Auburn’s staff is also battling a worrying trend. Here’s the Tigers’ S&P+ ranking by quarter, via Football Study Hall:
1Q – 35th
2Q – 18th
3Q – 63rd
4Q – 104th
Yeesh. Do opponents find them out? Does the staff not adapt? Is it a strength-and-conditioning problem? There are plenty of questions to answer. At this stage of the season it’s no coincidence.
Throwing on the move
One way to help Stidham, and get after this Georgia unit, will be the use of designed rollouts.
Continually shifting what is known in scouting parlance as the “launch point” would stop the Bulldogs’ dip-and-rip rushers from teeing off on the Tigers O-line.
True, rollouts shrink the field in half. But many of Auburn’s passing concepts are half-field reads anyway. And Stidham is going to have to get rid of the ball in a hurry regardless. He’s not going to be able to take deep dropbacks down in and down out.
Malzahn has the plays for just such an occasion. And wouldn’t you know, they’re named the same as Georgia’s key coverage concept: “Rip” and “Liz”.
Rip stands for rolling right, and Liz for rolling left — it’s the same with Georgia’s safety rotations in its three-match coverage.
Rolling the pocket does four specific things: A) It gets rid of the ball quickly (even if it’s a throwaway); B) It builds in a quarterback running option; C) It moves the target for the pass rush; D) It puts cornerbacks, who are reading the releases of receivers before deciding whether to play zone or man, in conflict — they have to read the roll and the receivers.
Malzahn et al. have rolled Stidham a bunch this season.
The designs in Malzahn’s playbook are particularly potent against defensive cousins.
The Rip design above rolls toward the safety rotation. The seam (#2 in Malzahn’s playbook), has the option to press to the flag, or flatten the route to the sideline.
This second example uses the usual methods to go after matching principles:
Opponents always like to run deep comebacks against pattern-matching defenses: press vertically, force them to convert to man, then spin back around, and they can’t get to the outside shoulder in time. Huzzah! It’s a 15-yard play.
The quarterback must be accurate. It’s tough for a trailing corner to break and hit the outside shoulder against an accurate, deep comeback.
Add in the extra benefit of a moving quarterback and you’re in business.
Getting Stidham on the move is a good call. The dude can create magic.
The most indefensible thing in football is a quarterback who can extend plays and make accurate throws on the run. Even as he moves around with his feet, defenses are paralyzed by the paranoia that he may unfurl a bomb downfield.
Stidham is an accurate and willing thrower on the move. He moves to throw as much as he moves to run.
He can create with his legs when necessary.
Stidham is quicker than fast. He has this curious way of confusing defenders with the slightest of shoulder twitches. He never moves his lower half, but defenders bite, take poor angles, and slip off the quarterback as he picks up another first down.
He can run all the designed option elements you want. But there’s no defense for a guy who can take off and just do stuff.
Stidham may have to create as many as five magic moments to knock off this smothering Georgia defense. It’s a big ask.
Much of Stidham’s play is mighty impressive. Some of it is maddening.
There’s a lack of consistency with his fundamental mechanics. He has an uncanny ability to deliver a well-thrown ball while all four limbs point in opposite directions.
That can breed bad habits.
Some guys throw great “off platform”: from funky body positions, arm angles, or contorting both because there’s some kind of pressure in their face. (Aaron Rodgers sometimes throws with both feet up in the air throwing across his body. Try figuring that one out.)
I’m not sure how often Stidham wants to be on platform! He doesn’t see the missteps of his sloppy habits because he can make up for them with that wicked release and devastating arm.
But those sloppy lower-body mechanics can, and will, come back to bite him.
It could be this week.
He has a tendency to detach his eyes from his feet. When it’s all synced up, he’s all good. When they get away from one another he’ll lean away from his throws, leading to misplaced throws, typically overthrown. It’s a recipe for turnovers.
He gets jitterbugs in his feet — should he stay or should he go?
He’ll tap dance back there. But not with the calm, graceful look of those great quarterbacks who keep their feet light so they can make an adjustment in a nano-second. Nope. It’s more like: That guy’s got ants in his pants.
Stidham slams one foot into the ground ready to deliver a strike, but the other isn’t quite ready yet. It hurts him mostly on tricky intermediate throws.
It’s quirky. The coaching staff will continue to try to clean it up.
He can also be sloppy on basic things such as weight transfer – another result of not playing with a stable base. Rather than pointing himself toward his target, he’ll rely on his arm strength to do all the work:
Stidham left a throw on the field that could have averted the Tigers’ only SEC loss. His body weight was leaning toward the sideline, and his target foot was trailing behind the intended receiver.
He missed high and wide. Not good enough.
The best quarterbacks play with a psychotic attention to detail. Stidham is the most talented quarterback in the SEC. Find that lower-body consistency and there’s no telling how great he can be as a “see it, fling it” quarterback.
Clearly, Stidham’s still damn effective. He can contort his arm with the best of them. Side-arm throws, three-quarter throws, textbook throws. They’re all neatly stored away in his bag of tracks for when he needs them.
Opportunities such as the play above will come for Stidham on Saturday. He needs to take them all.
His talent is not the question. He has the arm. He can move around. And, when needed, he can put the team on his back for a down or two.
To upset the No. 1 team in the country he will have to play close to perfect. He needs his coaching staff to devise the right plan, and he has to carry it out with ruthless efficiency.