AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn ended the longest (college) quarterback competition he’s ever been a part of by naming sophomore Sean White Auburn’s starter.
“We’re excited for Sean. He’s earned it,” Malzahn said. “He’s a guy that has experience in our offense last year. He’s a tough guy. He’s in a good spot. He’s in a good spot to lead this team. The team’s going to rally around him so I’m excited for him.”
The Auburn coaching staff hoped to make a decision in early August, but as the fall continued, Malzahn said the race between White, senior Jeremy Johnson and junior college transfer John Franklin III was “too good” to end.
On Thursday night, Malzahn felt White and rest of the starters would benefit from a week of repetition to prepare for the Tigers season opener against No. 2 Clemson on Sept. 3.
“We’ve got three guys that can run our offense but Sean White’s the first one that will be out there,” Malzahn said.
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White’s grasp of the offense and experience were two factors that gave Auburn coaches — and more importantly players — confidence that he could lead the team in 2016.
“It feels really good,” said White, who was informed of the decision before Thursday’s practice. “I feel blessed to be in this position, and I feel responsible to lead this team against Clemson. I’m happy coach put this responsibility on me and my teammates believe in me. I feel like they have a reason to believe in me. We’ll be ready to go come Saturday.”
How will the sophomore — he only started five games last year before suffering injuries — use his experience to guide Auburn in a different direction this season? When Malzahn said experience, he didn’t necessarily mean White’s minutes on the field (or touchdowns — he only had one in 2015) won him the job.
“Just probably the overall experience factor of knowing,” Malzahn said. “Being in the situations, knowing what to expect, knowing what to do or what not to do.”
White couldn’t have known what 2015 would bring.
“Last year, like I said, part of that might be on me but before the season, I prepared hard, I wasn’t slacking, but I wasn’t preparing to go out and start and lead the team until my name was called on,” White said.
The ways he’s been tested in the last year changed everything. After becoming the first Auburn freshman in 16 years to make his first start in an SEC game, White battled injuries, which limited his mobility and made adjusting in game situations difficult. At the end of the 7-6 season, White probably expected time to recover before solidifying his starting spot in the spring. That’s when Malzahn threw him another curveball, bringing in dual-threat QB John Franklin III from East Mississippi Community College. Again, White responded like an experienced veteran.
“The coaches’ job is to bring (in) somebody better than you every year. That’s their job,” White said. “That’s why they get paid — to put the best players they can find on the field. … So that wasn’t really (anything). For me, it was just to go out there and prove that I’m the best quarterback for the team and I tried to do that.”
Despite facing two very different competitors in Johnson and Franklin (as well as comparisons to recent Auburn leaders Nick Marshall and Cam Newton), the sophomore finally was able to distinguish himself in a simple, but crucial way: He focused on what he could improve — taking care of the ball and capitalizing on situations before him — yet stayed within himself.
“I wouldn’t say I’m Nick Marshall, like I said before,” White said. “But I definitely think I can run better than I showed last year due to being young and being injured.”
Malzahn stressed a return to fast pace and explosive plays throughout the offseason, and White followed instruction there, too.
“All those guys competed very hard,” senior wide receiver Marcus Davis said. “But he (Sean) did what he was asked — he ran the offense. That was the main thing and that’s how we’re able to play fast. I think he just did a good job this camp.”
White’s experience in 2015 was unexpected, but his response was strategic. The lessons learned, time dedicated and progress made catapulted him into a leadership role.
“It’s been a conscious effort (to take on a leadership role), for sure, but it has also been kind of natural, because I’m more comfortable and I’m older,” White said. “Really, I don’t even have to think about it, like, ‘Man, today I’ve got to go and lead these (guys).’ I just go out there and take control, because you feel like when you’re out there you’re the older guy, you’re the quarterback. When you’re out there and you’ve got young receivers and offensive linemen that are looking to you, it’s easy to lead. These guys are easy to lead because they listen and they’re great players and great people.”
White earned the starting nod and plans to work hard keeping it. Nothing is for certain in the SEC, or recent history, on the Plains.
The wait is over. The team can take a breath before settling in to play Heisman frontrunner Deshaun Watson and No. 2 Clemson. Sean White wins — for now.