An offseason ago, Auburn had this quarterback thing figured out.
Jeremy Johnson, heading into his junior season, was going to build off a limited-action, 75-plus percent completion percentage from 2014 and carry the Tigers to glory. The team even strutted its savior-in-waiting quarterback out at SEC Media Days to pound his chest.
Lots of us bought in … Auburn was a trendy pick to win the SEC West before the 2015 season. Reality came crashing down shortly thereafter.
Johnson’s junior campaign, and Auburn’s 2015 season, concurrently landed somewhere on the scale between failure and unmitigated disaster. Johnson finished with a 60.5 percent completion percentage and lost his job during the season. The Tigers went 2-6 in SEC play, dead last in the West.
Johnson and Sean White patty-caked their way through the 2015 season, each throwing around 150 passes for 1,000 yards and each starting a few games. It makes sense that this duo would open the 2016 spring practice sessions in a quarterback competition. But coach Gus Malzahn brought in a third party for the ballot in junior college transfer John Franklin III.
Auburn may take its time this season to name its starter under center.
The Tigers have definitely made a painstaking effort to get each quarterback work, a notion that continued on March 26 when Auburn held its first spring scrimmage … and there was a twist, live action for the passers – also known as full contact.
While each quarterback got his fair share with the starting offense, Malzahn’s new toy got some preferential treatment.
“We tried to give every quarterback equal reps with the ones and then we got just about equal with the twos,” Malzahn said, according to Michael Niziolek of the Ledger-Enquirer. “John Franklin got quite a bit of work, but that was by design just because we didn’t know as much about him as we do the other guys. It was good to see the quarterbacks. There were some designed quarterback runs, too. We wanted to see how they reacted.”
Malzahn was looking to set a pecking order, or even begin to solidify a depth chart under center. But all three had moments of glory and times of trouble in the scrimmage.
“It’s hard for me to say that right now, but all three of the quarterbacks took pretty good licks and responded well when they came back,” Malzahn said. “It was good for them in the pocket to have those guys rushing and feeling the pressure and have to keep your eyes down the field to make plays. All three got a chance to run the zone-type reads, and all three quarterbacks ran it. It was good.”
While Franklin fumbled on a quarterback-running back exchange, he also tucked the ball once and broke off a 70-yard run, said running back Jovon Robinson. Not to be outdone, however, Johnson showed off his arm.
Johnson reportedly connect with running back Roc Thomas on a 75-yard wheel route for a score.
Running back Roc Thomas said he caught a 75-yard TD pass from Jeremy Johnson in Auburn's scrimmage Saturday
— Auburn Gold Mine (@AUGoldMine) March 26, 2016
While White wasn’t lifted up by lengthy runs or passes, he’s still interchangeably working with the first-team offense, according to AL.com, who reported White and Franklin alternated first-team reps to begin practice Tuesday, while Johnson and Tyler Queen (a promising quarterback who has been limited as he recovers from injury) kicked off practice with the second team.
Who will emerge … White, Franklin or Johnson? There’s no real hurry to figure this out from Auburn’s point of view. Outside of getting the eventual starting quarterback as many first-team reps as possible as quickly as possible, the Tigers, maybe more than any team in the SEC, need to get this decision under center right.
Franklin may be the feel-good front-runner, and it’s not because of anything he’s done. It’s actually because he wasn’t around to muck up the Tigers’ offense last season. Why give the ball back to White or Johnson after watching them flounder about in 2015?
If that’s not reason enough, comparing Franklin to Nick Marshall, the quarterback who most recently took Auburn to the national title game, should give the junior college transfers campaign a boost.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee spoke about the Marshall-Franklin connection, but said Franklin had a ways to come.
“I think in our league it does (matter),” Lashlee said of the weight difference, according to the Ledger-Inquirer. “If you look at Nick, in the first year he played around the 198 range or 200 and he didn’t take a lot of big hits because of the style player he was, but he still got nicked up a little bit. He had a little bit of a knee at one time and kind of hurt his shoulder one time. He came back in his senior year and was up to about 210 and that 10-12 pounds made a huge difference. He played the whole year and never missed a game and stayed healthy.”
"John Franklin III has been dynamic & exciting but has a ways to go in learning this offense"
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) March 28, 2016
While Franklin may be the people’s option – and he may even truly be a nose ahead of White and Johnson – he still has the playbook obstacle to overcome.
Don’t rush this decision Auburn. Use last year’s early bravado as a cautionary tale.