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Early Notes on Auburn Pass Offense

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Auburn Pass Offense:

The quarterback position remains the focal point moving into 2016 after an average performance during 2015. The 2015 Auburn Tigers came up short on a couple of victories primarily because of their deficiencies in the passing game. The uncertainty at quarterback creates what appears to be a wide-open competition for the 2016 starting quarterback or does it?

On paper, there will be five scholarship quarterbacks on campus after the summer. Last year's starters Jeremy Johnson and Sean White return for the competition. Tyler Queen is coming back from surgery, and two new players are coming aboard. John Franklin III will garner the most attention because of his JUCO status and athletic ability. Woody Barrett is a talented incoming freshman, who will likely redshirt since he was unable to graduate early from high school to attend spring practice. Rarely has a true freshman come in and performed consistently at this level. As gifted as Barrett might be, starting him in 2016 would not be a good sign for the Auburn offense.

The Competition:

  • Jeremy Johnson: The 2015 rise and fall of Jeremy Johnson will remain a mystery from those outside of the coaching staff. It was clear based on the Auburn coaches comments before the season began, they were extremely confident in Johnson being the starter in 2015. His experience on the field during 2013 and 2014 along with his continued success during practice led the coaches to believe Johnson would be successful as the full-time starter. It all fell to pieces during the season opener, leading to his eventual benching after three starts. With this in mind, what can Johnson accomplish in practice now that will assure the coaching staff he is prepared to be the starter once again to open the season? For this reason, I don't see Johnson being the starter in 2016 unless the other quarterbacks fail or there are multiple injuries at the position. Perhaps his role moving forward will be the "experienced" backup coming off the bench.

  • Sean White: Once Jeremy Johnson struggled, Sean White made his first career start in game No. 4 of the 2015 season. It was apparent the coaching staff brought him along slowly, which handicapped the offense during his initial start. As White continued to play, the coaching staff increased his role as the starter but then his injury after throwing for over 250-yards in three consecutive games, brought his progression to a halt. After the Ole Miss game, White would not start again until the Bowl game, where he threw for only 103-yards and two interceptions. His future remains questionable, but he played well enough last season to earn the opportunity to compete for the starting role in 2016.

  • Tyler Queen: Queen enters his second season after redshirting in 2015 for medical reasons. Before his surgery in 2015, Queen became the odd man out as the competition basically came down to Jeremy Johnson and Sean White. With Johnson's 2015 struggles, Tyler Queen appears to be back in the competition, but he must deliver early and often, sandwiched between Sean White and John Franklin III. Queen could find himself out of the competition simply because of the "numbers" game. The coaches will be pressed to distribute equally the football among 3-4 quarterbacks during practice.

  • John Franklin III: Auburn signed the JUCO transfer with visions of what Nick Marshall was able to accomplish during his two seasons as an Auburn Tiger. Franklin brings the added dimension of being a dual-threat quarterback, something that has been extremely successful in the Malzahn offense at Auburn. Logic would indicate his signing was a gesture of the coaching staff's confidence level for the other quarterbacks. Gifted with speed and an active arm, Franklin could be the answer Auburn needs to operate their spread-option offense once again. Franklin's lack of experience as a quarterback will be his major obstacle to overcome.


Offensive Direction:

During his collegiate career, Gus Malzahn has fielded successful offenses with a pocket passer and dual-threat quarterback. Coach Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have often spoken of building their offense around the strengths of the starting quarterback. This more than often is an excellent strategy but becomes complicated when the competition involved, bring diverse attributes to the table. Sean White would be more successful in a pass-first structured offense whereas John Franklin III would flourish in the spread-option offense. Now more than ever, Auburn must define their offensive identity as early as possible and not 3-4 games into the season. It is not just about the quarterback but more importantly how the quarterback fits into the schemes and how he gels with his supporting cast.

Based on the recruitment of Franklin and Barrett at quarterback, I believe Malzahn has elected to make a commitment to the spread-option offense. Bringing Herb Hand and Kodi Burns aboard the staff along with Malzahn's consultation with Baylor coach Art Briles is a strong indicator the direction of the offense. Malzahn's history at Auburn is validation his most successful offenses on the Plains have been with a dual-threat quarterback. Operating with an athletic quarterback is the direction many coaches are striving for across the country. From 2000-2009, there was an average of 10 quarterbacks per year to pass for at least 1700-yards and rush for at least 500-yards in the same season. From 2010 to 2015, it has increased to an average of 17 such quarterbacks per season, a 70 percent increase of dual-threat quarterbacks.

Supporting Cast:

Most people will fault the quarterback for the issues on offense, but there is more to a successful offense than the performance of the quarterback. Auburn never overcame the loss of Sammie Coates and Duke Williams, which is why so much emphasis was placed on the 2016 recruiting crop of wide receivers. The play calling during 2015 was questionable at times, magnified by the unexpected performance of Jeremy Johnson and subsequent injury to Sean White. A Gus Malzahn offense has always been consistent with protecting the football, which resulted in conservative game plans and play-calling during the quarterback struggles in 2015.

Many have compared the signing of Kyle Davis, Marquis McClain, Elijah Stove and Nate Craig to the 2002 Auburn WR class. Auburn signed Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu, Courtney Taylor and Anthony Mix in 2002. It is important to remember Courtney Taylor was redshirted in 2002, and Devin Aromashodu was the leading receiver among the freshman receivers with only 18 receptions. Marcel Willis and Robert Johnson (TE) were Auburn's two leading receivers during the 2002 season though three true freshman receivers did make a contribution. The trio of true freshman wide receivers totaled 48 receptions, 721-yards, and five touchdowns.

Marcus Davis, Tony Stevens and Jason Smith are Auburn's most experienced returning wide receivers. The Tigers also return Stanton Truitt and redshirted Darius Slayton to give the coaching staff plenty of options to work with in spring practice. Marcus Davis is Auburn's most experienced and productive returning wide receiver. He was the third most target receiver in 2013, No. 6 during 2014 and No. 2 during 2015. During the last eight games of the 2015 season, Tony Stevens was the third most target receiver. Davis has been the more consistent performer of the two as Stevens has yet to live up to his 4-star billing. Kyle Davis and tight end Landon Rice are early enrollees, which will give them a jump on the other freshman players not able to participate in spring practice.


Auburn's wide receiver coach Kodi Burns will have a solid group of receivers to work with in 2016 but will lack experience in coaching and personnel. To his credit, Burns did an excellent job at Middle Tennessee State in 2015, as the Blue Raiders fielded two 1000-yard receivers. One of the receivers (Richie James) caught 108 passes for over 1300-yards as a freshman. Burns experience as a quarterback and wide receiver in Malzahn's offense should allow him to prepare mentally his receivers for situational play. Though he might lack experience as a coach, his ability to relate to his players has been very successful up to this point in his coaching career.

Reasonable Expectations:

Should John Franklin III win the starting role in 2016, it is important to remember his lack of experience at the QB position. He did not play high school football until his junior season and was recruited by Florida State as an athlete. After transferring to junior college, Franklin was more of a role player and not the starting quarterback. He can be a dynamic player, but his lack of experience should also be a red flag. There is plenty of potential and upside to Franklin because of his athletic ability, work ethic, and intelligence level. Auburn must also replace both starting tackles from 2015, which could become an issue early on when it comes down to pass protection.

During Cam Newton's first eight starts, he attempted an average of 17 pass attempts per game and Nick Marshall averaged 19 pass attempts during his first eight starts. If Franklin wins the starting role, look for the play-calling to be conservative early on, relying more on his running ability than his ability to throw the football. With Sean White as the starter, Auburn would be more balanced on offense right from the start but would lack the explosiveness Franklin would bring to the running game. The advantage of starting Franklin is his feet will allow him to make plays until he becomes more comfortable in the passing game.

Of the incoming wide receivers, only two will likely make a significant contribution to the offense. Marcus Davis will remain more of a perimeter and possession target than anything else, and I don't see Tony Stevens suddenly turning into a 40-50 reception caliber receiver. As a rising senior, Stevens should have shown more by now, but he can still become a serviceable component within the offense. This leaves the door wide open for Darius Slayton and Stanton Truitt. Slayton can become the much needed vertical target and Truitt appears to be more of a role player in Malzahn's offense. With his speed and elusiveness, Truitt can be utilized as an edge player in the passing and running game.

My ultimate concern for the Auburn pass offense in 2016 is the physical well-being of Sean White and John Franklin III. Both are not the typical size quarterbacks needed, and White is coming off a season where he failed to complete due to injury. Franklin is currently listed at 6-1, 185, which raises the question of his durability operating a spread-option styled offense. Can Franklin deliver 150-175 carries over the course of an entire season? It will be essential for him to avoid the big hits and most of his runs will be on the edge to create opportunities in the open space. At 6-1 200 pounds, Johnny Manziel managed to avoid any major injuries during his career at Texas A&M, which included 345 carries.


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