First Year Starting Quarterbacks
War Eagle, everybody! We’re going to procrastinate one more week on preseason previews, and address a growing concern. Everywhere you turn, folks are raving about Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton. I suppose it’s great that folks are excited, rather than making jokes about our predicament. For most of the past ten years, folks have been pretty critical of Auburn starting quarterbacks in preseason. Still, it’s getting pretty ridiculous when a guy that’s never started a FBS college game is being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy candidate. That’s a whole lot of expectations for a young man! I implore Auburn Tiger fans to stay behind Cam, even if he fails to pass for 600 yards per game.
There’s almost always an adjustment period when a quarterback becomes a first-time, full-time college football starter. That’s certainly been the case at Auburn! Even the legendary Pat Sullivan had his struggles his first season. A certain 45-19 blowout Auburn loss in Knoxville comes to mind from early 1969. I think it will take time and a few skinned knees before things are fully meshed this season. Fortunately, the early schedule is about as forgiving as an SEC schedule can be. There are a few cupcakes early, sprinkled with some less-difficult road games. I also think it will help that Newton is a couple of years older than many first-time starters. There’s no substitute for the maturity one gains each year of their twenties.
The quarterback is the most important player in the game of football, but the supporting cast plays a big role as well. Fortunately for the Tigers, Newton will be surrounded by a veteran cast. There’s an offensive line full of all-star candidates. There’s an All-SEC (or should have been!) receiver and lots of depth behind him. There’s a talented stable of backs. The ingredients are there to ease the transition. How have other Auburn first-time quarterback starters fared in the past twenty years? Find out after the jump!
Like Cameron Newton, Stan White took over a veteran offense in 1990, as a redshirt freshman. While White was untested, he had a solid line, durable senior backs James Joseph and Stacy Danley, and an all-SEC receiver in Greg Taylor. White had some phenomenal games in 1990, but also some struggles. There was the season opener, where we struggled to finish off Cal State Fullerton. Auburn only had a 24-17 lead entering the 4th quarter. There was an ugly heat-exhaustion game in Jackson, where Auburn rode defense and the running game to a 24-10 win over Ole Miss. At home against Tennessee, Auburn trailed Tennessee 26-9 in the third quarter, before Dye turned the freshman White loose. Stan the Man led Auburn back for a 26-all tie. After a lousy offensive game against Louisiana Tech, Auburn had to drive in the waning seconds to eek out a win. There was another tough performance in Starkville, as Auburn had to block an extra point to hold on 17-16 against the Bulldogs. I don’t think we got a first down in the second half against Bama that year in a 16-7 loss. White did have his ups and downs, but the team posted an 8-3-1 record overall.
It’s worth noting that White suffered brutal campaigns the next two years. Most folks blamed the Eric Ramsey scandal for Auburn’s poor records in 1991 and 1992, but White was the poster boy for the team’s failings. Fact was, neither White nor Ramsey was the main reason for those showings. Ramsey had already left Auburn and never played a snap either year. White had a converted freshman walk-on nose guard behind him in the backfield (Joe Frazier) and a disgruntled receiving corps that couldn’t catch a cold. Much has been written over the years about the decline of the Dye administration, but I think the key factor on the field those last two years were the receivers. Auburn’s Larry Blakeney had moved on to Troy, and Dye hired Tommy Bowden to shape up the receivers, and Auburn’s offense. Those two coaching styles were DRAMATICALLY different. Blakeney was the charismatic mentor, and Bowden was a no-nonsense taskmaster. Neither approach is necessarily wrong, but it was a shock to the players at the time. Blakeney had stars at Auburn, including Lawyer Tillman, Freddie Weygand, Alexander Wright, and Greg Taylor. Bowden had Frank Sanders, Thomas Bailey, Willie Gosha, Robert Baker, Karsten Bailey, and Tyrone Goodson. But things were a mess his first two years. Well, enough on that digression. I did feel the need to defend Stan White, though. He was repeatedly crucified in the press, and I’m still steamed about it.
It may surprise some, but the transition to Patrick Nix was hardly seamless. Nix was a 4th year junior when he took over, fresh off the miracle 4th down pass against Bama in 1993. The first half of the 1994 season was brutal for the Auburn passing attack. We relied on Stephen Davis the first half of the year, and when he was stopped, so was the Auburn offense. Auburn could hardly get a first down against LSU, but still won the game on 4 defensive touchdowns. It was a process from a dismal Nix game against the Bayou Tigers, to the 4th quarter heroics in Gainesville.
Dameyune Craig had his struggles early. Craig had run the short-yardage offense in 1995 as a sophomore, but found the going tougher as a junior starter in 1996. Auburn could not score a TD against UAB for THREE QUARTERS in the season opener! Auburn had managed only a field goal against LSU when Craig was knocked out of the game in the 4th quarter. Craig was rendered totally ineffective in a 51-10 blowout loss to Florida. Supporting cast played a role in Craig’s early struggles. The offensive line had 4 new starters in 1996, and there was very little running game to fall back on.
If White, Nix and Craig were struggles, the first time starters of 1998 and 1999 were apocalypses. Again, one must look at the supporting casts. Ben Leard took over as a sophomore with very little experience, and he played behind a patchwork line, and a depleted receiving corps. Leard had a disastrous start against Virginia in a 19-0 opener. Leard’s first pass against LSU was a pick-six. Leard was knocked out of the Tennessee game on an ill-advised option call. Leard was benched in favor of Gabe Gross midway through the season, but it had more to do with survival than passing ability. With a horribly depleted offensive line, it was agreed that Gross was better equipped to run for his life. Gross was thrown in as a true freshman, and he did run for his life on most plays.
In 1999, Leard proved to be a far more savvy passer, but a still-suspect line cost him a separated shoulder, and made way for freshman Jeff Klein. Klein’s first start was in Neyland Stadium against the defending national champion Tennessee Vols. Predictably, Auburn lost 24-0. Klein lost in subsequent starts against MSU and Florida, before notching his first (and only) win against Central Florida.
In 2001, it was Jason Campbell’s turn as a redshirt freshman. Auburn had a decent o-line, but it was an injury depleted and young receiving corps, as well as a young backfield. Predictably, Campbell struggled. Auburn relied mostly on the running game in early wins over Ball State and Ole Miss. Then Campbell faced a road trip to Syracuse, New York, a week after 9-11. The Auburn line had trouble blocking the Dwight Freeney-led Orangemen defense, and Campbell was rocked for 4 fumbles in the backfield. The offense went backward from there. Against Mississippi State, Auburn finally resorted to the old Avalanche play from the 1960s. Campbell would take the snap, everyone would block, and he’d just roll out and scramble. Somehow, Auburn eeked it down the field for 3 fourth quarter field goals, and Auburn won 16-14. Things looked hopeless against Florida,and Campbell was yanked in favor of junior transfer Daniel Cobb.
Cobb had his first-time issues. He’d gun that ball in there, but ball security was a big issue. Cobb led Auburn back to a win against Florida, and fired for over 370 yards in his first start against Louisiana Tech. Unfortunately, he threw 4 interceptions, which led to a 21-point Tech 4th quarter, and overtime. Auburn survived that for a 48-41 win, but the Tigers weren’t so lucky the following week in Fayetteville. Cobb committed numerous turnovers in that one, and Auburn was bombed 42-17. After a run-oriented win over Georgia, Cobb was again ineffective against Alabama, and went back to the bench.
Daniel Cobb was named full time starter as a senior, in 2002. Again, his performance was up and down. The opener against Southern Cal was not very good, but Cobb was brilliant against Western Carolina and Vanderbilt. After missing his first nine passes in Starkville against MSU, Cobb engineered a 42-14 win. It went south from there, as Cobb was knocked out of the Syracuse game, and struggled against Arkansas and Florida. Cobb was yanked for good in the Florida game, in favor of sophomore Jason Campbell.
Auburn again had a new starting quarterback in 2005. Although 4th-year sophomore Brandon Cox threw for over 300 yards in the season-opener, Auburn lost to Georgia Tech 23-14. Cox had thrown 4 interceptions, and numerous 9 yard throws on 3rd and 10. Auburn dialed back to a conservative run-heavy offense, and brought Cox along after that. With Cox at the helm, coordinator Al Borges enjoyed his best offensive year in Auburn in 2005. Cox was an up and down player throughout his career, but much of that can be attributed to a deteriorating cast around him. When Cox arrived at Auburn, Auburn had receivers like Robert Johnson, Courtney Taylor, Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu and Anthony Mix to throw to, with Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown in the backfield. By the time Cox graduated, a walk-on was the leading receiver.
Kodi Burns as a true freshman in 2007 had an awful introduction to college football. In the deteriorating offense mentioned above, Burns was tossed into the fire with a 10-0 deficit against Mississippi State, with a two-play script. All the coaches had for him was the zone-read and the quarterback draw. After one quarter, the Bulldogs had it figured out, and Burns was pounded early and often in the second half. Burns got the start the following week against New Mexico State, and continued to be ineffective. Burns was yanked and Cox was returned to the starting lineup.
Chris Todd got his first starting opportunity as a transfer junior in 2008. With a banged up shoulder, he never had a chance. By the third game, he was having difficulty even throwing the ball out of bounds.
The bottom line is that Auburn hasn’t won ten games with a new starter at quarterback since 1988, and that team had a defense that only gave up 8 points per game. With Cameron Newton, Auburn should have plenty of excitement, but it’s quite unrealistic to expect a Heisman season. Let’s stay in Cam’s corner regardless, and watch a great story as the young man develops. War Eagle!
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