Auburn fans are in a very familiar position right now: anxiously awaiting the word on who will start the game behind Center for the Tigers in 2016. Will it be senior Jeremy Johnson, redshirt sophomore Sean White, or JUCO transfer junior John Franklin III?
Pundits around the nation point to Auburn's QB situation as being the biggest cause for concern about the Tigers. History has definitely shown Auburn to struggle mightily when they don't have consistent QB play, so that's understandable. 2008, 2011, 2012, 2015, all were years where there were struggles at QB.
So why, if there's only one real new option at QB and he's not the predicted favorite to start at the moment, am I optimistic?
The Arkansas and Kentucky Games
Throughout the last few months, I've pointed to these games repeatedly as reasons why I'm confident in Sean White as the Auburn QB. Let's stop and think about the position he was in during those two games:
1) Redshirt freshman, playing in only his 3rd and 4th games
2) First SEC road games
3) One was a Thursday night road game
Those are pretty tough spots to be in. How did White handle those games? Very well. Just go back and look at WarRoom Eagle's cut-ups if you want proof.
What do I like, here? He never really gets rattled. He takes a few sacks, but it doesn't look like he had a lot of protection on some of them. He does an excellent job of moving around in the pocket and still finding throwing lanes. For the talk of his TD/INT ratio, he was never asked to throw much in the redzone, and two of those INTs were during the bowl game where he was still not 100%. He also runs well with the ball when he runs. Is he running the zone read? I have questions about that, honestly. I think some of what we see are just called play-action plays and QB keeps. Only the staff really know that for sure.
The final drive against Arkansas in regulation gives me confidence, too. They weren't the best thrown balls, but White still led that drive with everything on the line. One of those passes looks like Louis could have made more happen with it if he just continued his route and caught it in stride rather than jumping, but that could just be wishful thinking on my part.
Even with how the offense looked in these two games - and, overall, it looked pretty good - it could have been so much better with more consistent pass-catching and more tempo/pace. I think an Auburn offense unleashed with a more experienced and confident Sean White running Gus Malzahn's true fast-paced style could be deadly if the other positions fall into place.
What If It's Not White?
Then I still point to these two games as something to give us optimism. Why? Because by all accounts I've read, Sean White is the guy right now. He's healthy and improved and now has more experience behind him. If he's not the QB, then it means one of the other two has proven that they're better than what we see in those two videos above.
If it's Jeremy Johnson, then we're back to that first half against Arkansas in 2014 where a big-bodied QB with tons of arm strength has mastered whatever demons haunted him last season and is ready to show the world why he was so hyped before the 2015 season began.
If it's John Franklin III, then he's mastered enough of the passing game, has increased his accuracy, and is holding on to the football to possibly give the Tigers a Nick Marshall-type player. That's exciting just by itself. It means Gus & Company are confident enough in him that they think he's capable of doing even more than what White has already proven he can do.*
When Will The End Of The Race Come?
Who knows. It may be over now and the coaches just aren't saying. I know they want to get a starter named early enough that the winner is able to get in more reps with the 1s. I don't count out multiple QBs playing, though. I still hold to it being Sean White as the starter and JF3 as the Wildcat/Situational QB.
I'm not saying I really like that idea, because it forces the offense to substitute and kill a bit of momentum. It is, however, the type of thing Gus has done in the past.
I do think the end comes sooner than later. I just don't know if we're going to know about it when it does. Gus hasn't ever been the type to play games with the opposing coaches all that much, but I wouldn't put it past them to hold off on naming a starter just to make Clemson prepare for QBs with completely different styles. Shoot, for all we know the reports about White being the leader right now and Rhett Lashlee's appearance of tempering expectations of JF3 in his press conference is all misdirection.
We're only a few Saturdays away from seeing just what this year's Auburn offense is capable of, though. I can't wait to get the speculation behind us and see one way or the other.
*Or, it could mean that the running game situation is so bleak that we just have to have another running threat. This is a piece about optimism, though.