AUBURN, Ala. — There will come a time when Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee call Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and John Franklin III — and anyone else who might play quarterback this season — into their office.
It could happen later this week. It could happen next week. It could even happen in the pregame locker room on Sept. 3. Frankly, it could’ve already happened, and the 100-plus players, coaches and staffers in the know will have pulled off a commendable leak-free quarterback decision.
But when it happens, the quarterbacks involved in Auburn’s longest quarterback battle under Malzahn will enter a room with their head coach and offensive coordinator to learn their depth-chart fate to start the season.
“Most every time, our coaches were very cognizant of how they did it. Usually, once they made a decision, whenever that is, they’ll call each quarterback into the office wherever that is, with the offensive coordinator and head coach and let everybody know what direction the team is going and why they made the decision,” former Auburn quarterback Neil Caudle said. “Whether it’s them asking questions, making sure we’ll be on board, that we’re supporting and going to be a good teammate. Then, we have a team meeting that we have before every practice, and they tell everybody.”
Caudle knows the drill all too well. He’s also the model citizen for how to respond following a lost battle.
In 2008, he battled with Chris Todd and now-receivers coach Kodi Burns for the starting job. Then-coach Tommy Tuberville carried the competition all the way to the season opener before playing Burns and Todd. In 2009, it was the same trio competing, and Todd earned the nod before a record-setting senior season. In 2010, Caudle’s last season, he felt really good about his chances — until a guy named Cam Newton arrived on campus and led the team to a national championship.
The latter two took place under Malzahn’s regime as offensive coordinator. But, in the end, all three competitions felt the same. Caudle worked endlessly to receive a starting job that — even against Newton — he thought he won. He didn’t, just like two players won’t in this year’s battle.
“You’re there to win that job and lead the team,” Caudle said. “When you don’t, you’re extremely disappointed, wondering why you didn’t get it.”
Steps 1 and 2
But as Todd explains, there are really two parts to a quarterback competition: Winning the job and keeping it. In many regards, the second is tougher than the first.
Todd’s understanding of the quarterback battle concept began well before he stepped on Auburn’s campus, and even before he endured two quarterback battles at Texas Tech (both times winding up on the losing end). On his official recruiting visit to Oklahoma, Todd met with Heisman Trophy winner Jason White, who passed along the realistic wisdom that quarterback competitions are inevitable — even if you were just voted the best player in college football.
“He told me that every year they’re trying to bring someone in to replace you, someone in that’s better than you,” Todd said. “He said, ‘Every single year I had to compete for my job.’ That would include after winning a Heisman Trophy. You have to have that understanding.”
So Todd won the starting job in 2008. He then lost it, in part, because of a recurring shoulder injury. The battle returned in 2009 — same competition but a different coordinator. This time he had to impress Malzahn and then-coach Gene Chizik.
Malzahn’s approach was somewhat different than that of Todd’s previous offensive coordinator, Tony Franklin. Malzahn made sure every quarterback had a fair amount of reps working with the first team. He, however, wasn’t just looking at the guy running with the ones that day. Malzahn meticulously tracked how well each player responded to second- and third-team relegations. He hated turnovers then, and Caudle assumes he hates them now.
But when Todd received the starting job in 2009, he recognized that — after an up-and-down 2008 — many fans, and even potentially some players inside the Auburn locker room, wanted someone else at the helm. That’s when Part 2 of winning a quarterback battle begins.
“Being in that position, on that stage, is extremely difficult. It requires some physical attributes and physical abilities, but the mental side of it was astronomical,” Todd said. “Because there is so much pressure, the expectations are so high. There’s constant scrutiny. Every mistake that you make is made publicly.”
Todd put most of those job-calling pleas to rest early on in 2009. Newton did the same in 2010, as did Nick Marshall in 2013.
Johnson wasn’t so lucky in 2015 after throwing 6 interceptions in the first three games. The hot seat was on, and White stepped into the starting role. White, too, dealt with the out-of-house complaints before getting injured. The decision was made for him.
Either way, drowning out the outside noise might be the most difficult part. In the 2016 competition, no matter who is named starter, those distractions will appear with the first interception.
“I’ve been on both sides of that. I’ve been the backup guy that fans were cheering for or booed somebody. I’ve been on the opposing side where I was the guy, and they were cheering for another guy,” Todd said. “At the end of the day, you have to establish a confidence and belief in yourself that you know who you are and you have to stay true to that.”
At some point, Johnson or White (again) or Franklin will be faced with those adversities. But when? For now, it appears undecided, which Todd and Caudle both believe has its pros and cons.
Aside from the Newton season, all three battles Caudle endured dragged into fall camp. That’s when Malzahn chose Marshall and Johnson in their respective seasons as well. This year, with less than two weeks until the opener, it’s anybody’s guess who will be under center for the first snap.
Caudle, while recognizing the importance of competition, always preferred that the decision be made sooner rather than later.
“When I was in their shoes, I always thought it was a negative thing. Of course, I always thought I deserved it and wanted to go ahead and get the title,” he said, chuckling. “But really, when you’re in those shoes, you want to go ahead and get those reps with the ones and really start working with those guys and figuring out how we’re going to beat teams with certain guys.”
That hasn’t happened yet, and it may not until Sept. 3.
But that’s OK, too, Todd said. He refers to a quarterback competition as “healthy” for all quarterbacks involved and the ultimate success of a team. Sure, it helps to have “a guy” thrust into that role to begin building the season-long relationships necessary to succeed in the SEC, but he also appreciates that coaches have to make difficult choices that put their “jobs, lives, family, all that, on the line.”
In the end, Johnson, White and Franklin will step into an office for a conversation with Malzahn and Lashlee. Only one will leave as the starting quarterback against Clemson. Emotionally, it’s not a comfortable feeling, even for the winner.
But the key to it all: Everybody — coaches, teammates, fellow quarterbacks, and yes, fans — have to be on board in order for any semblance of a solid season to ensue.
“The school and those players know what they go through and support the person who is named the guy,” Todd said. “At the end of the day, whoever wins the job, it’s vitally important that we as an Auburn family support fully whoever that is.”