AUBURN, Ala. — It wasn’t Kamryn Pettway’s 56-yard scamper, or any of his many memorable runs on a 236-yard night. It wasn’t the wide-open touchdown strike from Sean White to Jalen Harris for the first tight end catch since the 2015 Outback Bowl. And it wasn’t Josh Holsey’s game-altering interception in the fourth quarter.
Rather, when Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee looked at the Ole Miss tape, it was a third-down scramble from White — ultimately setting up the Harris touchdown — that stood out as a must-have play when it happened.
“I mean the biggest play of the night, well one of probably the biggest plays of the night was that third-and-13 scramble,” Lashlee said.
It came on Auburn’s third possession of the third quarter, facing a 22-20 deficit. On the two opening drives, the Tigers stalled to a couple three-and-outs that resulted in Kevin Phillips punts. The third drive looked to be on the verge of the same fate after a botched snap, which Lashlee pointed to as White’s only real miscue in the game.
White had different ideas. He dropped back to pass on third-and-13 with less than five minutes to go in the quarter. His receivers couldn’t get open, so White got himself open.
He evaded a crumbling pocket and showed his faster-than-you-think speed to move the chains. Next three plays: 33-yard pass completion, 3-yard Kerryon Johnson run and the 15-yard touchdown to Harris. White certainly wasn’t the only playmaker in a high-scoring SEC West showdown, but for whatever reason, White’s nifty plays always seem to come as a surprise.
Not to the athletes around him on a daily basis, however.
“He’s going to make plays regardless of the situation, so if things break down, he’s going to make it with his legs. If things don’t break down, he’s going to make it with his arm,” Johnson said. “He’s ready for the moment. If you ask him to do something, he’s going to get it done. He may not have to week-in and week-out, but when we need him to, we know he will.”
Against Arkansas, White settled for a career-low passing performance (77 yards). He didn’t need to make game-changing plays, so he played in his role. For a good portion of the Ole Miss win, White played his part by getting the ball to his stable of backs in Kamryn Pettway, Johnson, Stanton Truitt, Eli Stove and, yes, himself.
Unlike the previous week, Auburn needed White to step up on critical downs. He didn’t shy away from the spotlight, successfully accomplishing whatever he was asked to do. Statistically speaking, White had a solid game. He completed 15-of-22 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown — yet another model of efficiency. He carried the ball for 27 yards, doing what he needed to keep plays alive on the ground.
“That gives you confidence because your coach is putting you in position, going out and letting you make plays. It gives you confidence,” White said. “When they call my number, I just want to go out and make a play.”
The White narrative hasn’t changed much since he was named starter after Week 1.
The redshirt sophomore can run effectively, even though he isn’t as fast as John Franklin III, Nick Marshall and Cam Newton. He can step up and make crucial third-down throws and moderate-yardage completions despite not regularly hurling the football 40 or 50 yards downfield to make a play. He’s not the most physical-looking quarterback, but White can step up and take a hit — like on the Truitt wheel-route toss — and get up without any concern.
For Lashlee, it always goes back to before White stepped on Auburn’s campus. To Lashlee, White is the same guy now as he was then. The White that suits up for Auburn is the same quarterback that was the last player invited to the Elite 11 camp. White won MVP at the event. He’s the same guy that originally was snubbed for the Under Armour All-America Game before making it as an alternate and winning MVP.
The White we see now is the same White that rarely came up in the discussion for Auburn’s future starting quarterback. White won that job, too.
“He’s one of those guys who loves to play the game. And a lot of times, certain guys, when the lights come on and they’re playing, they play their best,” Lashlee said.
But, as is the case with all facets of any competitor’s game, White hasn’t fully arrived.
He’s tied for 8th-best in country with a 68.5 percent completion percentage. That tops the SEC by more than 5 percentage points. White is the only everyday starting quarterback to have less than 3 interceptions. He has 2, and Tony Stevens will be the first to tell you that one of those wasn’t White’s fault. His quarterback rating, 159 flat, is ranked 12th in the nation and best in the conference.
Lashlee still knows White’s peak hasn’t been hit yet, but it can be. White is 7th in the SEC in passing yards per game, which is almost at the bottom among quarterbacks who take all their team’s snaps every game. At some point, Lashlee will expect White to open it up a little more.
And when he does, Lashlee expects to see the Elite 11, Under Amour All-America Game and third-and-13 performer show up and make the necessary play.
“He’s very efficient from 20 yards and in … I mean, pretty much deadly accurate,” Lashlee said. “The one thing that we have to improve on is hitting those vertical shots. I think that’s very obvious at this point. He’s extremely efficient, but if we want to take that next step, we’re going to have to hit some of those big throws.”