AUBURN, Ala. — It only took Jarrett Stidham two throws as an Auburn Tiger to make the spotlight pointed in his direction shine brighter.
Anticipation had fallen over the 46,331 fans sitting in Jordan-Hare Stadium watching Auburn’s A-Day spring scrimmage. In a matter of minutes, those dressed in orange and blue saw why they’d come: the hype was valid.
On his second pass attempt, Stidham sent the football spiraling 50 yards downfield into the hands of Nate Craig-Myers. The throw topped Sean White’s longest passing play in his two-year Auburn career (48 yards against ULM in 2016). Over the course of the first half, Stidham amassed 267 yards on 16-of-20 passing. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound newcomer ran the ball when he had the chance.
His game seemed complete. An erratic quarterback rotation that haunted Auburn last season appeared a thing of the past.
Yet what onlookers missed in all the excitement was the action unfolding on the sidelines. Stidham was busy sharing a message with his new teammates.
“You know, he just talked to me every off series,” Craig-Myers said. “He would tell me that we’re going to make a play and we’re going to execute.”
Quick update from the sidelines..
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) April 8, 2017
There was no hesitation or doubt in Stidham. His confidence, much like his striking on-field performance, wasn’t a one-day wonder. It’s what the Tigers have grown accustomed to in Stidham’s short time on the Plains.
Gus Malzahn didn’t name a starter through his team’s 15 spring practices. The head coach decided to give White, who was limited after suffering a broken arm in January, a chance to keep his starting spot by battling during preseason camp. It might not matter.
In Stidham’s 114 days on campus, the Baylor transfer showed how difficult it’ll be for any player to beat him out in the starting QB competition. Part of that has to do with his talent. But it’s Stidham’s temperament and ability to forge relationships that likely solidifies his place as the Tigers’ leader in 2017 — and more importantly, lift Auburn to a memorable season.
Becoming an Auburn Tiger
The A-Day display that earned Stidham offensive MVP honors was something Auburn hadn’t seen in years. Fans headed for the exits dreaming of the College Football Playoff.
But for Stidham, who completed 12 of his first 13 pass attempts, it wasn’t good enough.
“I don’t know about a grade,” Stidham said at a post-scrimmage press conference. “Definitely not anywhere near perfect. I still have a lot to work on.”
Weeks prior, in his first media appearance, Stidham told reporters he had “lots of weaknesses.” His mindset is something those around him have come to expect.
“Jarrett is a smart guy. He comes up here and studies a lot and does a lot on his own, which is good,” offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “That’s the characteristic of a really good quarterback. I think Jarrett is really a gym rat, so to speak, football-wise and spends a lot of his own time looking at the things that we’re trying to do.”
For Stidham it’s about more than familiarizing himself with Lindsey’s system. It’s about more than becoming Auburn’s starting quarterback or quieting SEC skeptics.
“That’s just who he is,” says Joe Gillespie, Stidham’s high school football coach. “That’s his personality, that’s his drive, his aura that he brings about him. He’s constantly hungry to get better, always knew he could improve his game. And he understood the more his game improved it improved others’ games on his team.”
Stephenville High School is quarterback factory in Texas. In Gillespie’s 20 years as head coach of the Yellow Jackets, he says “tremendous” players walked out of the school’s front doors and onto the next level.
Brandon Stewart played behind Peyton Manning at Tennessee for a season. Kevin Kolb starred at Houston before spending seven seasons in the NFL. Jevan Snead left Ole Miss early before he could break some of Eli Manning’s passing records.
Gillespie’s son was always in the same grade as Stidham. The longtime coach watched him grow up and believed all along Stidham was different.
“Being in this profession as long as I have, you know when you see a good athlete, even at that young of an age,” Gillespie said. “This guy’s got an opportunity to be extremely special, maybe the most special one we’ve had. He is a young man that really has his head screwed on tight and knows the direction he wants to go.”
Stidham’s determined to achieve at a high level, but knows he’s not going to do so by being like others who’ve come out of Stephenville or even through Auburn. He’s the first to admit he’s not Nick Marshall or Cam Newton.
“I just kind of be who I am,” Stidham said. “I don’t want to be somebody I’m not, somebody the others want me to be. I’m just going to stay true to my personality and kind of let that take off whichever way.”
Gillespie’s convinced Stidham won’t have any trouble finding his own way as a Tiger.
“There’s not too many people who dislike Jarrett — except for the ones who have to play against him.”
Josh Bulla and Stidham became close friends in seventh grade. The two spent the next few years playing football and basketball together. They were roommates on trips with their travel baseball select team.
Together the duo navigated adolescence as Stidham began establishing himself as one of the nation’s top football prospects. Through all of the ups and downs of both high school and his recruitment, Stidham never wavered.
“He’s just very optimistic, There’s never looking at the downside, he’s always looking forward. And I think it’s just a natural thing. He wants to be that guy who’s remembered for the person he was, not the player. He didn’t let being around all these big names and stuff bother him or change the way he treated other people. That’s the way everyone should be, but it’s not like that.”
Bulla has observed Stidham’s perspective and presence and how they contribute to his success and allow him to separate as a leader while fitting in with a wide range of people. Bulla says Stidham’s spirit electrifies.
“If I had to explain it, he’s kind of like gravity,” Bulla said. “It’s just an energy that you can try however hard you want to, but you’re not going to be able to ignore the energy he brings. He always creates a positive atmosphere. Gravity is the only way I know how to explain it, really, because it’s just no matter what you do you can’t fight gravity. That’s really the only way I can explain it. He’s always going to make you feel welcome and comfortable, that’s just how it is.”
Stidham’s makeup has made the transition to Auburn smooth. Craig-Myers and other players say they’ve felt a connection to their new quarterback growing since he arrived in December.
“We go out to eat here and there, just talk and chop it up,” Craig-Myers said. “But it’s a pretty good relationship. He’s a guy who came in day one trying to get clicking with guys. He came in with a leadership mentality.”
Confident and intense
It’s tough to determine Stidham’s greatest football asset. Many believe it’s his arm strength. Malzahn emphasizes the importance of big gains, but those were difficult to come by last season.
Stidham showed the ability to deliver those throws and move Auburn down the field. Later this year he’ll have to do it against defending national champion Clemson and SEC defenses. It’ll be tougher than facing the Tigers’ second-team defense, as he did on A-Day. Stidham’s unshakable belief in himself could make all the difference.
“He lacks no confidence. That’s for sure,” Gillespie said. “But he always backed up his confidence. And he’ll talk trash and some people call it trash and some people call it confidence, but he backs up everything he says. And he’s only talking it to build others up as well. ‘Hey, try to hang with me today. And hey, I’m going to outwork you today, see if you can keep up with me, try to stay at my pace.’ It’s a challenge. Those types of challenges make others rise to the occasion.”
Stidham will continue raising his game. His understanding of what it takes to become Auburn’s starter this fall could be another edge.
“I think it’s just hard work every day, doing extra, going up, watching extra film, doing extra in the weight room,” Stidham said after the spring game. “Just being a good leader. There’s so many intangibles that go into being the guy. I’m just going to take it day to day and just get better.”
Teammates and coaches describe Stidham as an intense leader. Though being new to a team can make stepping in as a leader difficult, Gillespie thinks Stidham can handle it. The quarterback is eager to take charge and hold teammates accountable, but rarely has to because his style is contagious.
“He has so much passion for the game and he’s so excited every day that he takes the field that everybody else picks up their game and it makes it fun,” Gillespie said. “He loves the game, he has a great deal of fun with it.”
Of course, Stidham isn’t the first quarterback to transfer to Auburn or the first transfer to arrive with soaring expectations. He’s certainly not the first player to try to adopt a leadership role.
But he’s promised himself he’s going to do things his way. His thought process seems to be working.
“So far so good,” Stidham said. “Me and the rest of the team, we’re getting along great. I love these guys like brothers and I’d do anything for them.”
As Stidham continues making himself at home in Auburn, all of his strengths — as a football player and leader — will become more clear.
And SEC play? That could bring out the very best of an already zealous Stidham.
“He’s a little bit fiery. More fiery than I really thought he would be, just getting to know him,” Lindsey said. “But I see him, when we go stretch lines, going up and down the stretch line and high-fiving guys. So I’ve been impressed with him. I think he’s played some, so he’s got a little bit of confidence. Sean does, too. So those guys, I think they try to have a good time and are excited to be out there for practice. I think all the good quarterbacks you’ve seen over the years, I always go back to Brett Favre, he had a great time playing the game. Being at Southern Miss, I got to know him a little bit… I think that’s the key to having a really good quarterback, is having a guy that’s confident.”
Quarterback is a mental position as much as it is physical. Auburn fans will keep holding their breath until Sept. 2, when the Tigers open at home against Georgia Southern.
The conversation surrounding Stidham will persist and evolve as the season nears. For some players, the experience could be burdensome.
For Stidham? Handling expectations is natural.
“If there’s any one thing I remember about Jarrett, what I’ll always remember was how humble he was and how he fit in and he was able to handle all the pressures,” Gillespie said. “Those are exciting things that were happening for him personally, but they’re also packed with pressure. He handled it with such grace and dignity and integrity that even grown men like myself could learn from.”