The Quarterback Battle
Alabama fans are in a state of anxiety again this spring. “Who will be our quarterback?” This question is asked of me almost every day. Everybody loved Blake Sims two years ago, but he could not deliver the prize. Nobody wanted Jake Coker last year. All he did was go 14-0 as Alabama’s starting quarterback and hand the unbelieving Tide fans another national championship. “Really, who will be our quarterback this year?” As long as Nick Saban is the coach, there will be an adequate quarterback! Before this column is read, the Alabama faithful can throw away the Xanax and get ready for another run at the championship.
Auburn fans are leary of anything Coach Gus Malzahn decides to do with the quarterback situation at Auburn. A complete melt down at the end of 2014 with the ultimate quarterback for Malzahn’s sneaky offensive system, Nick Marshall, Auburn lost four of its last six games including their bowl game. Then in 2015, Coach Rhett Lashley and Malzahn put a javelin thrower into the system which is designed for a Nick Marshall type. The results were astronomically abysmal. Jeremy Johnson was named a Heisman Trophy candidate with the assistance of the Auburn publicity machine. The national media bought it. The local media really bought it. Heck, I even bought it when the national pre-season polls came out with Auburn ranked high in the top ten with an outside chance of a spot in the national championship play-off.
The SEC Sports Writers picked Auburn over Alabama for the SEC Champ-ionship. Blue and orange was THE color for 2015. Black and blue would have been a better choice. Thanks to Idaho and San Jose State, Auburn avoided a losing season! Coach Gus Malzahn will not survive another season like that one. From 12-2, to 8-5, to 7-6. This is called coaching success in descending order! So, Malzahn and his staff must settle on a quarterback, adapt that quarterback to his version of his offense and then develop a number two quarterback that can be adequate at that offense. However, the back-up may have skill sets that don’t match the chosen offense. This will require extra effort in practicing a hybrid offense that Malzahn can live with.
Developing a starting quarterback at Alabama is much easier than developing a starting quarterback at Auburn. Why is that? Well, it is so fundamentally simple that it often goes unnoticed. Nick Saban recruits a quarterback that is smart, big, strong, tall and adaptable. It helps a lot if he can throw the football well and read defenses, but then, if he could not throw well, Saban would not have recruited him in the first place. Reading defenses is not a natural skill. It must be learned. Alabama teaches that very well.
Malzahn on the other hand recruits the best athlete that he can find who is quick, fast and as agile as a mountain goat. It will help if he can pass and read defenses, but is not a requirement. His running skills are more important than his throwing skills. After all, any good athlete can learn to throw a football. Reading defenses well would be excellent, but would not be a requirement. Malzahn’s quarterback must read the defensive end and react. If he can’t do that, the rest of his skills are relatively unimportant. This discussion of the difference in the types of quarterbacks at Auburn and Alabama is elementary of course, but it will help to understand why Alabama can take a fifth year senior halfback and make him successful, or a Florida State reject and make him successful.
In a nutshell, Saban is looking for a quarterback that will not lose the game. Malzahn is looking for a quarterback who will win the game. There is a big difference. For twenty-five years, I watched Coach Vince Dooley pick quarterbacks that would not lose the game. Some were very good, most were not. Can you name two quarterbacks who played for Dooley? Check Dooley’s twenty-five year record. Saban is of the same mind. Can you name two great quarterbacks that played for Saban?
It must be admitted that Coach Malzahn at Auburn has a razzle/dazzle offensive system that is based on smoke and mirrors. It is very exciting and can put up big numbers...IF, he has that quarterback with the magic feet, the deceptive arm and the intangible ability to make the big play. That quarterback my friends...is as scarce as hen’s teeth. What is the best system? What works best may be the best system...Check the records.
Alabama has a three-way tough quarterback battle going on. That is usually good news if the three top guys are all good. That probably is the case in Tuscaloosa this spring. Cooper Bateman, who Lane Kiffen tried to make the starter last year, losing the Ole Miss game in the process, has the inside track simply because he was Jake Coker’s back-up last year. That means that he was the second best quarterback on the team in 2015. His biggest asset is his athletic ability. He was even tried at wide receiver in the spring last year. He is poised. He throws well. He is a tough football player, and he is ahead in experience. He held for all extra points and field goals in 2015. That’s how much faith the coaching staff has in Bateman. Does all of this mean that he will be the starter when Alabama opens up with USC in 2016? Not necessarily. There is more raw talent behind him. I hope he is the guy, but he has to hold off two tough competitors.
David Cornwell is about the same size as Jake Coker, 6’-5” - 240 lbs. He is a drop back passer with a rifle arm. He is definitely competitive. After being talked about as a potential starter last spring, Cornwell wound up being listed as the number five quarterback on the depth chart. One quarterback transferred but not Cornwell. He had rather fight than switch. His size and his strength make him a candidate for the starting job. He will generally not make bad decisions. However, he is not as mobile as Bateman or his other competitor, red-shirt freshman Blake Barnett.
Blake Barnett came to Tuscaloosa with more press clippings than Joe Namath. However, he was not strong enough to be the man last year. The California phenom came in at close to 200 lbs on a 6’- 4” frame. It was evident to me in the spring game that he needed to put some muscle on that frame. He has bulked up to 215 now and is definitly in the mix for the starting job. He is a player that could be the starter at Auburn. By that I mean that he has the running and passing ability to run the zone read. He is a former five star prospect dual threat type quarterback. He is by far the best runner. He is also more mobile in the pocket. He has the arm and he is smart. A year running the scout team has toughened him up. He should be ready to take the reigns. He just might do it.
Regardless of whether it is Bateman, Cornwell or Barnett, Alabama will start a quarterback that will not lose the game, and maybe one that is capable of winning some games. The talent is there. The coaching will make him a winner or just a quarterback.
Auburn has a real problem. Jeremy Johnson decided to come back for his senior year instead of transferring to a lower division team where he could have started in a system that fit his skill set. This decision is admirable but not exactly what was best for Johnson. He wants to be the quarterback at Auburn. He has invested three years in the system. It will surprise me if Coach Malzahn can afford to try to make Johnson the Heisman candidate that he was supposed to be last year. It would be a fantastic sports story...but, it ain’t gonna’ happen. Hopefully Johnson can contribute in some way to a successful season at Auburn in 2016.
Last year, the Auburn back-up to the Heisman candidate was a true freshman named Sean White. At 6’ - 0”, 200 lbs., White had neither a height advantage or a weight advantage on the opposition. With everything going in the toilet with Johnson, Coach Malzahn decided at mid-season to try the freshman. What did he have to lose? Despite a disappointing result, there was some reason to be confident in White. He was cool and calm under pressure. When given the time he could locate his receivers better than Johnson. More importantly, he could run the zone read effectively, giving Auburn a little running room for the bevy of backs that were available. The problem was that even if White made the right read, he was just not quick enough or fast enough to be a credible threat for big plays, which is the foundation of Malzahn’s machine.
White is tough. He is accurate. But, he can not run the Malzahn zone read offense effectively. So, why was he recruited, and for that matter, why was Johnson recruited? This is the baffling story that haunted Auburn in 2015, two quarterbacks who could not run Malzahn’s offense, both of whom were recruited by Coach Gus Malzahn.
There are other quarterbacks on campus but the only one that has a chance to shine in this offense is a junior college transfer. John Franklin III, was dismissed from Florida State and came to Auburn by way of East Mississippi Community College. Of course Coach Jimbo Fisher was not going to dismiss his Heisman quarterback Jameis Winston, so, he took the low road and kicked Franklin out. John Franklin III has all the tools that Malzahn requires to run the Malzahn machine. He is quick, he is fast (4.3 forty), he has a good arm. If he can read defenses and keep a cool head, Franklin will be the starting quarterback at Auburn when they host Clemson at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the fall. He has to be tough enough to take a pounding. At 5’ - 11”, 180 lbs., Franklin will have to play through pain. He is Malzahn’s only chance to return to the magic of 2013.
So, barring injuries, John Franklin III will lead Auburn into the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa against Blake Barnett of the Alabama Tide.
I hope they will both be undefeated!