Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham is a game changer for the Tigers, coach Gus Malzahn and the SEC West.
Stidham doesn’t walk into the SEC as the best quarterback. But he’s as talented as any of the young signal-callers in the conference and adds a new dynamic to Auburn’s offense.
After combing through the film, let’s look at how the former Baylor quarterback fits into Malzahn’s system:
The Baylor and Auburn schemes both rely on a similar trait: speed. Each of them needs ball speed and individual quickness. They’re designed to get the ball to the fastest players in space as quickly as possible.
Both systems run a number of constraint plays, lateral throws and runs designed to shift the eye level of the defense and to set up big hits down the field later in the game. Bubble screens, slip screens and swing passes are all foundations of each system, with the quarterback asked to release the ball quickly, and with enough accuracy to let receivers run after the catch.
In some ways, it’s gimmicky, inflating the stats of quarterbacks with mostly horizontal throws. But there’s also great skill involved, with the quarterback requiring a compact, efficient release and the ability to get the ball out regardless of where he catches the ball (laces or no laces, get the ball out). Here, Stidham excels. He has a really quick release, with little wasted motion, and the ball explodes out of his hand.
The two schemes differ in the quick passing game. Baylor uses few timing dropbacks, whereas Malzahn has built more into his system when he’s had the players to execute it. For as expansive as Auburn’s offense can look, they run a number of traditional West Coast timing combinations, with some window dressing to create easier throws.
Sean White excelled this season at getting the ball out quickly. Stidham has been more of a “see it, throw it” type of player, throwing it whenever a receiver comes open rather than acting on a particular dropback.
However, both systems rely on predetermined reads, with a play call isolating and attacking a specific defender.
Baylor takes this to the extreme. Its entire system during Stidham’s time was a half-field scheme that often didn’t have receivers running routes on the backside of plays.
But Auburn uses some similar elements. The Tigrs run heavy play fakes that put the quarterback in a one-read-and-go scenario. I love Stidham in that kind of role, where he’s acting as the point guard and getting the ball out quickly and working in conjunction with the running game (the core of both Auburn’s and Baylor’s offenses).
Here, you see an example of Baylor using a heavy run fake to isolate an inside linebacker and attacking the middle of the field. Stidham throws a dart over the middle, hitting the receiver in stride and giving him a chance to pick up extra yards after the catch.
There isn’t a timing principle to the play (which will likely be included under Malzahn), but it’s a perfectly thrown ball and executed play.
When Auburn’s offense is at its best, it combines the pace-and-space rushing and a vertical passing attack. That’s why Malzahn was hell-bent on thrusting Jeremy Johnson into the lineup. He didn’t play with the same kind of rhythm or precision as White, but he was willing to let the ball fly downfield.
Malzahn is able to move defensive backs and linebackers off their spots through design, by getting them to move their eyes and feet laterally with all kinds of pre-snap movement and window dressing. The best way to take advantage of that is to hit deep shots behind them. With White at the helm, as accurate as he is, too much of the passing game remains underneath. Linebackers or safeties who are initially fooled are able to drive on the ball. Sure, they may give up 5 or 6 yards on a play, but not the killer 20- to 25-yard splash plays that are a foundation of Malzahn’s explosive offense.
Stidham brings back that element. He’s not only willing to take deep shots, he excels at it. He has a good understanding of mixing up his trajectories and velocities to different levels of the field, and the natural arm talent to make any throw.
In the SEC he isn’t going to have as many wide-open throws. But he shows good anticipation and ball placement down the field.
At the intermediate level he can be sloppy, particularly if he’s feeling pressure. But he has shown great ball placement on vertical throws.
Too often in big games in both 2015 and 2016, Auburn was unable to create chunks of yardage. The Tigers relied on horizontal plays. Defenses like Alabama’s made them pay the price with elite sideline-to sideline quickness. Now, Malzahn has a multi-dimensional player who will force the defense to sit and react rather than firing off the ball.
Understanding of RPOs
Run-pass options are now prevalent throughout college football. Baylor’s innovative veer-and-shoot system and Auburn’s fast-break spread-to-run attack pushed them mainstream.
Malzahn still uses a series of pre- and post-snap RPOs, with the quarterback reading a defender and deciding whether to hand off the ball to a running back or pull it back and throw.
At Baylor, Stidham constantly ran RPOs or packaged plays, making reads based on how many defenders sat in the box and the movement of an individual linebacker (second-level RPO) or safety (third-level RPO).
They’re particularly potent in the red zone. Here, on a second-and-goal play against West Virginia, Baylor runs a second-level RPO: an inside zone run with a tight end seam route. Stidham reads the middle-of-the-field linebacker. If the linebacker sits down or crashes down to play the run, he throws the seam ball. If the linebacker rotates into coverage, Stidham hands it off and Baylor enjoys 1-on-1 blocking up front.
The linebacker sat, voiding space for the tight end and creating a simple pitch and catch.
Not all quarterbacks can make those decisions on the fly. Stidham’s experience with a vast RPO system is going to allow Auburn to keep pass defenses on the back foot, and even give Malzahn the scope to expand his repertoire.
Athleticism in the run game
Stidham is a really good athlete. He isn’t a 0-to-60 mph burner. But he’s a legitimate dual threat that requires defenses to prepare for him.
Auburn spent much of 2016 changing its quarterbacks to get specific “option” packages on the field. Stidham isn’t as explosive as as quarterback John Franklin III as a runner. But he’s enough of a threat to hold a backside defender (the true purpose of option football). And if he’s asked to pull it down, he can do damage with his legs, particularly in the red zone.
At Baylor, Stidham ran many of the same option concepts that Auburn and Malzahn use: veer-options, speed options and zone options, albeit without triple-option running plays.
Slotting in Stidham as a guy who forces the defense to respect the option, and never has to come off the field, is going to create better matchups for Auburn’s offensive line, and will help spring Kamryn Pettway untouched to the second level.
When Pettway was healthy in 2016, the Auburn ground game was as impressive as any in the SEC. Stidham’s ability to pull the ball will give Pettway more 1-on-1 matchups and help deliver more explosive plays.