Jonathan Wallace has been at Auburn for what seems like 15 or 20 minutes. Is he in the running to be named starting quarterback? (Todd Van Emst photo)
WARNING: This idea is extremely far-fetched, and writing about it seems ridiculous. But the longer the QB race drags on, and the more praise Jonathan Wallace receives, one can't help but wonder if he is a legitimate contender for Auburn's starting quarterback job. He probably isn't, but could he be? We recently anointed Frazier as starting QB, but the question about Wallace continues to poke at us.
Sept. 22, 2007. That's the last time a freshman started a football game at quarterback for Auburn. Kodi Burns got the nod against New Mexico State after playing well in relief for Brandon Cox against Mississippi State. Burns started 1 of 5 and Cox took over for the rest of the game, claiming the starting job for the rest of the season.
Before that brief stint by Burns as a starter, the last freshman QB to start for Auburn was Jason Campbell on Dec. 31, 2001, against North Carolina in the Peach Bowl -- it was still actually called the Peach Bowl then. He completed 12 of 18 passes for 74 yards and one interception and took a beating. UNC's stout, Julius Peppers-led defensive line sacked Campbell three times and knocked him out of the game midway through the fourth quarter with a rotator cuff injury. Daniel Cobb came on in relief, and Auburn lost the game 16-10. Campbell would go on to have mediocre years in '02 and '03 before breaking out in the Tigers' 13-0 2004 season. Unlike Burns, Campbell had been given a number of starts in his freshman season and completed 89 of 142 passes for 1117 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions. Those numbers were nothing to write home about, but when the only other option at quarterback was Cobb, they were as good as Tommy Tuberville was going to get.
Fast forward 11 seasons from Campbell's last start as a freshman and five years since Burns' one shot, and the expected starting Auburn quarterback is sophomore Kiehl Frazier. Frazier was a five-star recruit, he saw some playing time as a wildcat QB in his freshman season of 2011, and since the time he first arrived on campus, he has been considered to be Auburn's future at quarterback. But now we're three weeks into fall camp, and Frazier still hasn't been tabbed by Gene Chizik as the starter even though his competition is a guy with a banged up shoulder and a true freshman. Everyone knows Clint Moseley is not going to be the starter. His performances in 2011 combine with the injury time missed during the spring and fall leave no doubt about that fact. Jonathan Wallace, on the other hand, has been getting rave reviews from coaches and players for his solid play in practice, his ability to pick up the playbook and his leadership ability. If anyone is competing with Frazier for the starting job, it seems like it's Wallace. That begs the question: Could Wallace actually win the starting job?
First of all, it should be acknowledged that the idea of Wallace, the three-star out of Phenix City who literally wasn't recruited by Auburn until Signing Day, being named as the team's starter is the kind of thought that would come from a brain long warped by the ill effects of too much bourbon and too many emotional meltdowns on fall Saturday's. When freshmen start at quarterback, at least at Auburn, it is usually because they are taking over midseason for a veteran who just couldn't pan out. That's how Burns earned a start, and it's how Campbell found his way into multiple starts. The same goes for Gabe Gross in 1998.
There's a reason that Auburn head coaches -- head coaches everywhere, for that matter -- have been hesitant to give such fresh faces such huge responsibilities. No matter how much talent a signal-caller has and no matter what he does with the rest of his career, freshman quarterbacks almost universally have a ceiling of mediocre. Campbell went on to win an SEC player of the year award and become a first-round pick in the NFL Draft; Gross eventually gave up college football to focus on his baseball career. Even with such different career paths, the two quarterbacks put up similar numbers fresh meat. Campbell's statistics, mentioned above, suggest he was one of the rare specimens to hit that "mediocre" ceiling. Gross -- 88 of 197 for 1,222 yards, seven touchdowns and 12 interceptions -- showed flashes of promise but made too many bad throws as a result of his inexperience.
The fact that Burns, Campbell and Gross are the only Auburn quarterbacks in recent memory to start as freshmen shows just how incredible it would be for Wallace to do the same. It's highly unlikely that Chizik and offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler want go that route, and yet, the question lingers. Could Wallace actually start against Clemson on opening day? With the Chizik refusing to end the competition, at least publicly, and Wallace continuing to receive accolades on the practice field, it is much more of a possibility now than it was three weeks ago. The more players and coaches speak about Wallace in post-practice interviews, the more he seem to be in the mix.
"He really is a young leader. He's a really smart guy. The coaches acknowledged him for learning the plays so fast because he came in later in the summer, and he really came a long way. He knows what he's doing -- a real talented guy." -- Greg Robinson, Aug. 20
"You can tell coming in that he's really mature. He's really a professional on and off the field. He's got good grades. He gets to meetings early. He's a guy that a lot of the freshmen look up to just because of the way he conducts himself." -- Kiehl Frazier, Aug. 14
"For a young guy, being able to pick up the verbiage, and being able to communicate, walking into the huddle for the first time -- he's done a good job. He's young, at times he's swimming, just like all the freshmen are. That's standard operation in terms of learning." -- Scot Loeffler, Aug. 4
While Wallace was at first receiving praise for simply doing some good things as a freshman, it has evolved into acclaim for playing well enough to compete with the other quarterbacks on the roster. Will the kind words continue to develop into a press conference in which Wallace is named the starter? Sound arguments can be made for both sides of the debate.
WHY WALLACE WON'T BE STARTING
- Wallace just hasn't been around long enough to be thrown into the fire. Yes, he's picking up the playbook quickly, and yes, he's been impressive in practice, but he has only been on campus since summer. Inexperience often leads to mistakes, and Wallace is about as inexperienced as they come. It's simply too soon to ask him to play against SEC-caliber competition.
- Frazier really is the man. Since he signed with Auburn in 2011, Frazier has always been expected to be the starter in 2012. He has shown some inconsistency during fall camp, but he is a great talent and has show just how good he can be in the last few weeks of practice. Frazier has done a great job of becoming the leader of the offense, and he has earned the trust and respect of his teammates and coaches. Chizik is just allowing the competition to continue so Frazier doesn't get complacent or lose focus.
- Even a couple of weeks ago, individuals close to the program were saying that the competition was over. Whatever reasons Chizik has for not releasing his starter to the public, the team knows that Frazier is its quarterback.
- Come on, Frazier was a five-star recruit, he showed excellent ability to carry the ball in 2011, he's 6-foot-2, 226 pounds, and his arm has been described by wide receiver Emory Blake as stronger than Cam Newton's. He's the complete package; he must be the starter. But then again ...
- It's not like Wallace is tiny. He's 6-2, 197 and will continue to put on weight. He knows how to carry the ball -- 891 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground during his senior season at Central High prove that. Wallace has the build and skill set to be every bit the duel-threat quarterback that Frazier is.
- Considering the circumstances of his recruitment, Loeffler must love him. Wallace flipped to Auburn on Signing Day in February a few days after Loeffler took over as Auburn's OC. Loeffler has a great track record with quarterbacks, and if it took him just a few days of looking at Wallace to be convinced that Auburn needed to go after the then-UCF commit, he must have seen something special.
- Because Wallace's signing was Loeffler's first real contribution to the program, he is likely favored as something of a pet project. There is no way Loeffler would admit it or show any biased feelings, but he could be rooting for Wallace, and the more Wallace improves, the more Loeffler will push him to raise his level of play. If Wallace continues to respond to that push, Loeffler's favoritism may push the freshman all the way into the first-team offense.
- Frazier might not be ready to start. He can be a great leader, and he can have a strong arm, but if Frazier struggles with fundamentals, Chizik will hesitate to put him in charge of the offense. Frazier admitted that former OC Gus Malzahn never taught him proper footwork or how to make reads, and the effects of that poor training could still be lingering. Frazier never looked comfortable on passing plays last season, and if he wants to start in 2012, he will have to show a much better understanding of the game going on around him.
- If a freshman is going to start, Loeffler's offense could protect him. Auburn will focus on the power running game, and the passing game will feature plenty of underneath throws to the tight ends. Loeffler wants to stretch the field with his receivers, but if the quarterback isn't ready to do that, the offense will be more conservative, and Auburn will rely much more on its defense.
- It wouldn't be the first time a quarterback working under Loeffler started as a freshman. When Loeffler was quarterbacks coach at Michigan, John Navarre and Chad Henne both achieved that honor. Navarre redshirted his first year in Ann Arbor, but Henne was a true freshman, and he went on to be named to the freshman All-American team in 2004.