Will the Gus Bus Fly in 2017?
With fall camp progressing slower than I would like, Gus Malzahn has stayed coy on whether or not he’s leaning towards one quarterback or another to be named as the starter. Malik Willis has actually received most of the specific praise Malzahn has given out in his post-scrimmage and post-practice news conferences. This year Gus’ decision on who will start is more important than ever. Auburn’s stable of young, talented receivers seem primed for a breakout performance, but another disappointing season could send his detractors into an uproar.
So what should our realistic expectations be for this season regarding the passing offense? Gus has certainly established a reputation for his offenses moving the ball extremely well on the ground, and coaches almost always maintain a certain loyalty to their strengths in play calling and offensive strategy. However, I think the addition of offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and offensive analyst Al Borges could really make a significant impact on the identity of the offense this season. So let’s take a look at how the Gus Bus could take flight in 2017.
But first let’s look at the total passing offense for each season Gus Malzahn has been at Auburn:
2009 – 2,857 yards (Chris Todd)
2010 – 3,002 yards (Cam Newton)
2011 – 2,022 yards (Barrett Trotter/Clint Moseley)
2013 – 2,422 yards (Nick Marshall)
2014 – 2,984 yards (Nick Marshall)
2015 – 2,257 yards (Jeremy Johnson/Sean White)
2016 – 2,203 yards (Sean White)
The first thing that jumped out to me here was just how productive Nick Marshall was in his two seasons with Auburn. I had no idea he came close to throwing for 3,000 yards in his second season. That’s a true testament to Malzahn’s ability to adapt to his personnel and opposing strategies.
Second, how good was Chris Todd in 2009? His single season at quarterback is arguably one of the most under-appreciated in Auburn history.
Third, I noticed is the sharp decline in passing offense since the 2014 season. Although the 2013 offense posted similar stats through the air, the running game more than made up for those “missing” yards.
Finally, as the personnel brought in by Malzahn filtered in and Tuberville’s recruits filtered out, the passing yardages seem to depreciate a bit when someone not named Newton or Marshall was running the offense. This could be coincidence or a direct result of lack-luster quarterback play, but I think it’s a fair point to make. Malzahn has seemed to struggle at times getting receivers involved in the offense.
Having said that, how well has Auburn distributed the ball to their receivers under Malzahn?
Below, I’ll list the number of receivers with double-digit receptions in each of Malzahn’s seven seasons:
2009 – 6
2010 – 6
2011 – 6
2013 – 6
2014 – 8
2015 – 9
2016 – 8
I honestly thought this number would drop as seasons progressed but they’ve actually been on the rise. Maybe Malzahn isn’t as bad at distributing the ball as I thought. He still seemingly refuses to acknowledge the tight end position—the most receiving yards a tight end has had under Malzahn is Philip Lutzenkirchen in 2011 with 238 yards—but the effort to distribute receptions has been there.
With these figures in mind, this is a number that could drop drastically in 2017. I could see the group of receivers having receptions in double digits be as little as four or five guys. And maybe that’s the trend we need to see. The current stable of receivers is easily the most talented in a decade or more. Malzahn may not have to look much further than Nate Craig-Myers, Eli Stove, Kyle Davis, and Ryan Davis to find the answer he needs in the passing game.
Of the current group of receivers, who stands the best chance at being key contributors?
This is a list that could be as long or short as the coaches want to make it (without sacrificing success).
The easy group to highlight would include, in no particular order:
After that, the list gets trickier as there are many wildcards:
John Franklin III – Having seen his ball-control issues, I think the chances of JF3 making a huge impact catching the ball is very low. I expect him to play, and serve as a decoy in many cases, but the times he is targeted will likely be limited to screens, the occasional reverse, or running the jet sweep.
Will Hastings – Tremendous athletic ability and has seen limited action in his time on the Plains thus far, but is someone I really think could have a breakout season.
Jalen Harris – *Sigh,* I know he’s a tight end but this could be the year we see big things for this position. Especially in red zone situations. If I ran into Chip Lindsey on the street today, the first thing I would ask him is what role the tight end(s) would be playing in his offense this season.
Sal Cannella – JUCO transfer, basketball background, from Chicago, long blonde hair, tattoos—basically this guy has swag and the athletic ability to back it up. He’s received high praise since arriving in Auburn and has taken a lot of reps with the receivers as well as tight-ends/H-backs. Of the four guys listed here, I think he has the best chance at becoming a household name to people who don’t follow Auburn that closely.
But what about the quarterback? Doesn’t that matter? Yes and No.
I’m comfortable with what Sean White brings to the table at this point. His health will always be a concern, but honestly I think Auburn is in a much better position this year as far as offensive weapons go. This will greatly limit White’s exposure to injury compared to last season.
Jarrett Stidham could very well be the quarterback of fans’ dreams, but I’m still throttling my expectations a bit. Not out of disrespect to him, but I’m a bit jaded from previous quarterback expectations. Anything Stidham can bring to the table that makes him more effective than White will be a bonus for me. Now, do I expect him to be named the starter? Yes, I do. I don’t see Gus bringing in a quarterback to sit the bench.
That leaves Malik Willis, and this is where things get interesting. I sincerely believe he could set up some significant playing time for himself this season. He’s the quarterback mentioned most by Gus this fall, and his athletic ability has to have Malzahn drooling on the sidelines. As much as I criticize Malzahn and his ‘packages’ at times, this could be the one case where that could be warranted.
Final thoughts—What will 2017 look like?
From the solid group of quarterbacks to the impressive roster of receivers, Auburn seems poised to have one of its most productive seasons in history throwing the football. In fact, I think it could be one we’ll remember for quite some time. I normally try to avoid pumping too much sunshine, but a lack of production this season would be hard to fathom and equally as hard to accomplish, given how much talent is present.
I predict the group of receivers with double-digit receptions will be five and that Auburn will pass for 3,000+ yards in 2017. Auburn could certainly find success in other ways, but to attain the lofty heights that many think they are capable of, they will have to be able to get things done both running and passing. A high-powered pass attack puts them in the position of challenging Alabama for the SEC West title.