Shaking off the Summer Daze
The college football offseason provides ample time to stew, speculate, pontificate, hypothesize, theorize, dream, dread, and anticipate the coming season. No other sport dials that up multiple notches quite like college football does a month before it gets under way.
By the time August arrives each year it’s safe to say that I’ve spent a healthy amount of time considering all sorts of scenarios for the team, the conference, individual players, possible scandals, possible firings, strategies that need to be implemented, and more. Cutting through the coach-speak can be difficult this time of year. Everybody loves everybody when fall camps begin. Every player is in the mix. In many cases, you won’t know what your team has until the whistle blows for the first time.
Today I’m going to share just a few of the thoughts that have been with me (and have been evolving wildly) all throughout the summer and lay out some of the things I think we might see (or need to see) this fall on the Plains.
How good will Jarrett Stidham be? How good does he need to be?
It’s anybody’s guess as to how well Stidham will perform in Chip Lindsey’s offense. I gave up predicting major quarterback production two years ago, but I firmly believe Auburn is in a great position here. Jarrett Stidham does not have to be the super-human presence that many think he could be. In fact, if he is even 75% as productive as his most diehard supporters think he will be, Auburn is going to have huge success this season.
Consider this: Once it found its rhythm last season, Auburn’s offensive struggles could be attributed almost exclusively to an unhealthy Sean White and a banged-up Kamryn Pettway. Stidham, with similar efficiency to White and some added accuracy in his down-field passing, takes a lot of the “extra-curricular work” out of the equation that Auburn relied so heavily on last season to score points. As a result, Kamryn Pettway will be put into more advantageous situations, the passing game opens up and takes pressure off of the ground game, touchdowns are scored (a lot), and all is right in the universe. Jarrett Stidham may very well be the second coming of <insert great college quarterback’s name here>, but he doesn’t have to be. And that’s a very good thing.
Can Will Hastings and Jalen Harris get some love?
Now I realize that when you start thinking about prime time targets for Jarrett Stidham (or Sean White at this point to be fair), names like Nate Craig-Myers, the brothers (but not really) Kyle and Ryan Davis, Eli Stove, and maybe even John Franklin III come to mind first—but Will Hastings and Jalen Harris give this offense some very underrated targets for our quarterback to throw to—targets that create a sophisticated, nuanced attack that can leave opposing defenses scratching their heads.
I can’t remember the last time an Auburn tight end had three receiving touchdowns in a big game, but 2017 could be the year that we finally see a true emergence of secondary threats in the passing game. The playmakers at wideout (the aforementioned Craig-Myers, Davis Bros., Stove) are our obvious threats. Will Hastings and Jalen Harris are the guys that defenses forget about in pivotal moments—guys like Hastings and Harris are who you throw daggers to in the late stages of the 3rd or 4th quarter and put a game on ice. Anybody heard of a guy named Hunter Renfrow?
Burn it. Burn it as soon as possible. Burn it yesterday if you can!
Obviously, I’m referring to Malik Willis’ redshirt. To be clear, I am not in any way suggesting he should start or have one of those so-called “packages” Gus is so fond of implementing at times. What I am suggesting is that Malik Willis get as many opportunities to play in mop-up/garbage time as possible this season, running the most “normal” version of Auburn’s offense of which he is capable. I know that the very thought of doing such a thing sends chills down some peoples’ spines, but the concept of holding a player out (especially a quarterback) and forcing him to redshirt is completely overrated in college football.
Gus Malzahn has struggled to develop quarterbacks during his time on the Plains, and I think it is time to try something different. Jarrett Stidham provides all the hope and potential of semi-long-term stability at quarterback, but that can’t become an argument in favor of holding Malik Willis back this season. Put him on the field and find out what you’ve got when the opportunities arise. If he’s as good as we all want him to be, we won’t miss the red shirt season that never was. And if he doesn’t work out, less ground will be lost in recruiting the next signal-caller.
Kerryon Johnson’s production is taking a step back in 2017.
Kerryon Johnson is a great athlete, one of the best to ever wear the Auburn uniform. But 2017 will bring slightly smaller numbers than we’ve seen from him in years past. It’s not that I don’t think he could be productive in this offense, it’s just that everywhere I look I see someone else that can do it better. You can run him between the tackles, but that is Pettway territory. You can run stretch plays or jet sweeps, but Eli Stove and JFIII are always going to be faster. You can have him catch balls out of the backfield, but Jalen Harris is more physical and imposing.
In a way, Johnson’s versatility hurts him to a degree. He’s great at everything, but he’s not the best option in any individual scenario. There are so many ways a guy like him can be utilized, but as it stands right now, there are simply too many offensive weapons (on paper anyway) for him to carve out a significant number of yards to call his own. That’s not to suggest that he won’t be a key contributor. Make no mistake about it, Kerryon Johnson will make highlight reel plays throughout the season. I just don’t expect him to be responsible for a lion’s share of any one offensive category.
Statistically – The Defense Will Improve
Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams will be sorely missed on the defensive line this season, but a lot of ‘experts’ seem to believe that Auburn’s reliable (and at times dominant) defensive play left with them. Not so fast my friend. The defense, overall, could see an improvement in numbers this season if the offense can be the legitimate threat it appears to be. Auburn returns three starters at linebacker, anchored by Tré Williams. Admittedly, the secondary is still a bit thin, but it is not without veteran playmakers such as Carlton Davis and Tray Williams. I still firmly believe that Auburn’s defensive front will continue to be a strength with its mix of talent, experience, and potential young playmakers. And bonus production has a chance to become a key factor if guys like Byron Cowart can play up to their potential (though I’m not holding my breath).
Sean White will push Jarrett Stidham much harder than many expect in the starting quarterback battle
Auburn’s quarterback competitions are typically more similar to wars of attrition than they are to actual competitions, but I think this year is a clear exception. Sean White is one of the toughest, most capable, and resilient players I’ve seen play for Auburn. His main problem, in my opinion, is his size and strength. If only White were a few inches taller or a degree or two bulkier, I think we don’t see a player like Jarrett Stidham transfer to Auburn at all. Eventually, I think Stidham will emerge as the more polished candidate for the job, but not before Sean White pushes him to the limit. I’ve been comfortable with potential backup quarterbacks in the past, but Auburn truly has a special group of signal-callers for the 2017 season.