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Natural Selection

By on September 21st, 2016 in Football 20 Comments »

Which way is the right way?

On a small but densely packed Pacific archipelago off the coast of South America a young man had a startling idea reinforced by what he saw before his eyes. Multiple organisms that were related to one other had evolved differently in the separate island environments they were subjected to. But was it the environment that changed the organisms directly, or was there some other explanation for their survival? Might not the organisms themselves be an instrument of change in the manner in which they lived?

The beginnings of that journey led to the most startling and controversial theory explaining evolution and the origins of planet wide diversity, one that is still being hotly debated today. But Charles Darwin’s observations were unequivocal—certain organisms seemed perfectly suited to their particular environment, while close genetic cousins that developed in a different environment showed particular qualities that fit those individual conditions.

Change those environments, and the organisms from one environment will struggle and even fail in another, even alongside their close brethren of the same species. There is nothing wrong with these creatures, they simply aren’t in the correct environment that allows them to thrive.

Which brings up the question of another sort—that of a quarterback for a given style of offense, say, for example, of the Auburn Tigers. In nearly all respects Sean White is an excellent choice: smart, alert, sound in judgment, well practiced and as dynamic a leader we could ever hope for. I have little doubt that his attributes were and are the cause of Coach Gus Malzahn’s selection of him as the starting quarterback.

That he is capable of great production of yardage and efficiency was made perfectly clear in our game against Arkansas State. However, as many have pointed out, in the harsh environment of the Southeastern Conference, at least one defense has learned that, despite his abilities, he isn’t a threat to run the ball and take off for long yards on the fundamental offensive play—the zone read play.

On a given run, his average is just under three yards per carry.


In sharp contrast …

John Franklin III has shown a glimpse of tremendous potential on that particular play. This is evident in the short span of time he has been able to be on the field. In the fourth quarter against Texas A&M, it seemed to kindle a wild hope among the fan base that the latest ‘Master of the Zone Read’ had arrived on campus. Certainly his 9 yards per carry and dynamic game play sparked a tremendous upsurge of rushing production in dramatic fashion.


Additionally, this capability seems to complement the inside running game of Auburn’s running backs.


It’s hard not to like seeing that, and I’m sure this is the particular lighting in a bottle that Gus Malzahn keeps trying to discharge on the field of play. It is clearly evident in both the first and third games of the season that this is exactly why John Franklin III’s name is called time and again, depending on the game situation.

The problem I have is the means of placing that ‘perfectly suited organism’ into the particular environment in which it can thrive with abandon. That is by player substitution depending on down, distance, field position and defensive tendencies. Doing it the way Coaches Rhett Lashlee and Gus Malzahn have attempted isn’t working against a defense that is equally capable of adapting their player mix and schemes to combat it.


Sun Tzu said it best ‘All warfare is deception.’ If your enemy knows your plans, you have less hope for victory

There is no question. No matter how dynamic the play of this offense, if the style or specific play selections can be anticipated by a capable defensive coordinator and alert players on the field, it will be less successful that it otherwise would, and the offense’s play must evolve or fail in the environment to which it is subjected.

The numbers show this story quite well.


When Auburn sends in John Franklin III and Kamryn Pettway, the rushing yards and yards per play explode. When Kerryon Johnson and Sean White are in, the rushing yards are less but the passing game begins to stretch the field. The differences have already been seen on the field of play and in the particular play of the defense.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen Sean White expertly continuing a zone-read play in open space without the ball. The defense keyed on his mesh point and then concentrated on the runner, ignoring his movement after the handoff altogether. He’s not a credible threat running the ball. When he does attempt it, he will get fewer yards than John Franklin III. This is not a judgment on his overall ability as a quarterback. It’s just in those particular conditions and environment, he struggles—an alert, fast, quality defense facing Auburn on mid- to long-yardage plays can simply ignore White’s contribution to any given run play.

This is not so in the case of John Franklin III. His yards per play and dynamic ability to run at speed to evade defenders has been perfectly displayed on several occasions (even though I still hear Bear Bryant’s voice in my head whenever he does—commenting bitterly about the late great Kenny Stabler, “There go the Snake, carrying the ball like a loaf of bread”*).

However, the question remains, who is the right choice going forward? In facing the average, or exceptional, SEC pass rush, skilled and capable linebackers, alert and able secondary, and adaptable defensive scheme, which of these quarterbacks gives the team the greatest chance at achievement and victory?

The answer must be—the player best suited to the environment in which the team finds itself. Trying to fit a similar type of player into that same role will be a less effective endeavor. This is a key decision facing the Auburn coaching staff at this point in the season, and on that selection rides the fate of the team.

I must admit, I simply don’t know what that answer should be. I’m merely a fan observing the struggle and situation. I don’t coach these players and am blind to other evidence shown in practices, team meetings and discussions. The early evidence and numbers may show one result, but as we have seen time and again, early numbers in the SEC don’t count for much. It’s still too early to tell, and the people who can choose are paid much more than I am to make those selections based upon many more criteria than I ever can hope to have access to.

Is a 10% advantage in the passing game equal or superior to a 20% advantage in the run game? Will it matter game to game? Is it about big plays passing or big plays running and the efforts of opposing defenses to counter the Auburn offense? Like I said, I don’t know the answer to these questions.

The stakes are high—maybe not survival of the fittest in the Galapagos Archipelago but close enough for Auburn fans. This is why this game is such an all-consuming passion for us. We are captivated by the drama and mystery of the unfolding events and the particular selections made. 

Say what you want about this season and this team, it’s must-watch TV no matter what. Hopefully, we can overcome and master our fate when the time comes.



War Eagle. Would love to see the above at the end of the season.

*Even as the ever-ardent Auburn fan since the age of 6 when my older brother was a freshman there, I and my entire family would still watch the Bear Bryant show religiously. If you lived in Alabama or Northwest Florida in the 1960’s and 70’s you simply could not avoid watching and hearing the words and wisdom of the sport’s greatest coach. Old, cantankerous, boozy and brutal, he still illustrated an incredible grasp of the game of football that has rarely been equaled and never surpassed.


  1. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    I just have to point out that JFIII’s performances have been in garbage time, whether we like to admit it or not.

    • cmatt90 says:

      True. Fair point. But what we do know is that in non-garbage time, the offense with Sean White leading it is stagnant. So the choice now is to stick with what we know does NOT work, or try JFIII, who might work (or might not, but we don’t know yet).

  2. ausouthal says:

    Auburn has given up 32 negative plays. Hand coached offensive lines have ranked 105th in 7 of his 8 years as an offensive line coach. Auburn presently leads the nation in negative plays and I don’t see how a qb is going to change that a whole lot. Play calling and offensive line performance has way more to do with it than who is behind center.

  3. samwatkins says:

    Not only are JFIII’s yards in garbage time, there is a fundamental flaw in the Malzahn/Lashlee offense even if JFIII knew and/or could execute the rest of the play book. Between the 20s, the zone read spreads the field and gets yards in bunches. Once inside the red zone, the area the secondary has to patrol is compressed and they can come up in run support much faster. Combine that with the lack of lead blocking and you get a whole lot of field goals. The only Malzahn offense that could consistently score on short yardage had Cam Newton to punch it in. Otherwise, we have to score at distance, something JFIII can’t do unless he is a real passing threat. Sean White seems to me to be well suited to something more West Coast-ish, but they play calling will probably keep him from playing in his natural environment.

    • cmatt90 says:

      Unlike White, who knocks it in every time? I mean, how worse could our red zone offense be with JFIII? We’re already bottom of the barrel over the last 14 games or so. At least with JFIII we’ve got the chance for some long run plays to break things up, and he can toss up a long ball as well as White can (we’ve complete what, one long pass this year)?

      All I’m saying is your argument to stick with White can’t be that the offense is working as it is.

      • samwatkins says:

        I was trying to make two separate points. First, Malzahn’s system as he wants to call it is fundamentally flawed. Even with Nick Marshall running it, scores typically had to come from outside the 20. With JFIII, that is really unlikely.

        Second, Malzhan has to do a better job of adjusting the scheme and play calling to suit the players he has. In the specific case of Sean White, my non-expert opinion is that he could be pretty effective in a play action heavy variation of the West Coast offense.

        • cmatt90 says:

          I’m not sure you can call an offense that was a hair away from winning the national championship fundamentally flawed. But Malzahn’s offense without a running QB is fatally flawed.

          My point is that unless you’ve secretly been scouting JFIII in practice, you have no idea what he can do. And all I’m saying is why don’t we set him loose and see, because White simply isn’t working. We’re basically running West Coast style offense…dump offs, short passes, screens…and it’s failing miserably without a zone-read threat at QB.

          I just don’t get blaming it all on Malzahn and assuming White can be a competitive SEC QB. I’ve seen nothing at all that shows White can throw the ball downfield or do anything more than hit wide open receivers. To be a threat without his legs, a drop back QB needs to be able to accurately throw deep and also add value with tough passes short. White’s not a value add, he’s a placeholder.

          • zotus zotus says:

            Let’s cut to the chase on #5.

            “They gonna do two plays, the read.”

            “5 can’t throw, Bro.”

            Or, so says the Texas Aggie safety.

            Click here:

            P.S. O, by the way, if there is indeed a “placeholder” on this Auburn Football team, it is none other than the 2-headed-tied-at-the-hip duo a.k.a. “the offensive genius” … and, his trusted assistant “the QB guru.’

            But, we’ll all be able to see just how this little drama plays out concerning Malzahn & Lashlee.

            Afterwards, maybe the Auburn football program can leave all this useless distraction behind … and, can then get back to what’s really important: Getting out of the cellar of the SECW. Just saying.

  4. Tigerette80 says:

    Thanks for the article—enjoyed reading it!

  5. Jason Wright says:

    Thanks for another good read Sully. As usual, gives us a lot to chew on.

  6. ATL_AU_FAN ATL_AU_FAN says:

    Interesting analogy — Another good Sully read!!

    War Eagle!!

  7. neonbets says:

    Sean White is a fine QB for another era, but not this one. If you're looking for a fundamental QB who throws an awesome 5 yard pass into the flat, then White is your guy. But, unfortunately, that's not the game that's being played anymore.

    So apply Sullivan's logic on a broader scale–and look at the Top 20 teams this year and show me a Sean White corollary. Maybe the QB for Wisconsin (and the Badgers are not happy with their QB situation) . Also, maybe MSU's QB. And both of them would start over White.

    I know many don't like to hear this kind of criticism, but tell me where I'm wrong. Every QB starting for a Top 20 team is better than Auburn's QBs. Every one of them. People are frustrated because they think some old school scheme is going to propel Sean White & Auburn back to relevance. It's not going to happen. [A special scheme might propel JFIII, however. But he's not good enough, even for a special scheme.]

    • cmatt90 says:

      I’m in full agreement on this. White isn’t a QB that can make value-added throws. He’s a safe QB, but he’s not good enough to lead us to a top-10 finish, which is where we should be given the quality of our recruiting classes.

      I think we just don’t know who JFIII is yet, though what is clear is that he has at least least one elite SEC-level skill, his legs. White has no elite SEC skill. I think there’s a chance JFIII could be Nick Marshall like, he’s clearly got a strong arm, and we just haven’t seen him throw in game situations enough to discern whether he can be a limited passing threat like Marshall was. But I refuse to believe he’s so bad at QB that he can’t complete the screens and wide open 10 yard throws that White is capable of completing. And JFIII doesn’t even need to complete those quite as well as White does if he’s adding value with his legs.

  8. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..I remember when both the Bear and the Shug shows ran an hour each, and they’d show nearly every play. And it was wide-angle, so you could see what the DBs were doing and what routes were being run. We watched both shows, particularly after big games.

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      I remember them too. Even the “Co-cola” and “Golden Flake” spots by both coaches. The Auburn Football Review with Shug Jordan was a must-see too. They were both the idols of millions of young players like me. No one gave a hoot about playing for money as a professional – but for either of them in those years? It meant the world.

      • Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

        …..Not a Co-cola fan, but for my money Golden Flake still makes the best plain potato chip. I am not a big chip-eater, but I did have a bowl of them, and some sour-cream ‘n’ ranch dip in front of me, for the season opener against Clemson.

  9. broken_towel broken_towel says:

    Off topic, but there is no actual debate of evolution. Just intelligent people accepting facts and ignorant people beating their chests like the apes they says they have no relation to.

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      But then again, Darwin’s work wasn’t written to prove evolution exists, only a means by which it is accomplished. At the time there was little to no debate over evolution within the scientific community. That came much, much later and is more an American political debate than anything else.

      At least, that’s where the majority of the motivation to even have a debate seems to spring from.

    • Tiger Tiger says:

      Beating their chests…sort of like you’re doing right now. Nice…