StatTiger: Looking for the Right Quarterback

StatTiger writes about the quarterback competition at Auburn heading into Gus Malzahn's first season as head coach of the football Tigers.

Despite finishing the 2012 season ranked 115th nationally in total offense and No. 112 in scoring, the Auburn Tigers were actually No. 16 nationally in "explosive play" ratio.

Auburn averaged a pass play of at least 15 yards or a run play of 10 yards or more every 5.9 offensive snaps. The national average last season was 1 every 6.7 plays and Auburn's ranking was No. 2 in the Southeastern Conference.

With a such a fine ranking in explosive plays, why did the Tigers struggle on the scoreboard? Auburn's inability to sustain drives made life for the offense an excruciating experience. Because Auburn was No. 116 in third down percentage, the Tigers averaged only 57.9 offensive snaps per game. The 2012 Tigers were the only team in the country to average less than 60 plays per contest with the national average being 71.5 plays.

Auburn's poor showing on third down was the result of inconsistency on early downs. The Tigers averaged 5.6 yards per play on first down, which was No. 78 nationally. Seven teams in the Southeastern Conference averaged better than 6.0 yards per play on first down, which translated to a more successful third down conversion percentage.

Auburn's average distance required to convert a third down last season was 8.3 yards. Of the 69 times Auburn faced third down and at least eight yards to convert, the Tigers were successful just 10 times, or 14 percent. With Auburn failing to convert 69 percent of its third downs during 2012 the Tigers had the fewest number of snaps on first down in the nation.

Eight teams in the conference averaged more than 30 plays per game on first down while the Auburn offense had just one game with more than 30 snaps on first down.

If Auburn is going to take advantage of its "explosive play" ratio in 2013, the offense must find ways to remain on the field for longer periods of time. The key to sustaining drives, and developing offensive consistency, will be the passing attack.

Last season Auburn was No. 85 nationally in pass efficiency on first down and No. 115 on third down. The Tigers started three different quarterbacks during 2012 with Jonathan Wallace ending the season No. 1 on the depth chart. Kiehl Frazier opened No. 1 and then gave way to Clint Moseley.

Wallace and Frazier return to fight for the starting role, but will face stiff competition from Auburn's most recent class of recruits. The two returning scholarship quarterbacks came out of spring practice with very little separation. Gus Malzahn realizes the offense will only go as far as the starting quarterback can take it.

"You know, the foundation of the offense, as far as the run game and the pass game, doesn't change," Auburn's head coach says. "What does change is once you identify the quarterback, you build around his strengths."

The good news for Auburn's quarterbacks is Malzahn's offense has ranked among the most productive i the nation on first down passing plays as well as thir down passing plays in recent years.

Though solid quarterback play will be essential in 2013, position coach Rhett Lashlee knows there will likely be some limitations early in the season. "A lot of that will be dictated on the quarterback and how fast we can continue to progress," says Lashlee.

"We are always going to do what the quarterback can handle and execute because them being successful, with whatever amount of the playbook is in, is the most important thing for us to have a chance to win and protect the football," the quarterback coach adds.

Last season Arkansas State was No. 9 nationally in touchdown-to-turnover ratio while the 2012 Auburn team ranked 110th. During six of the last seven seasons Malzahn's offense finished the season with an average ranking of No. 20 in touchdown-to-turnover ratio.

A quarterback expected to challenge Wallace and Frazier for the starting role is junior college transfer Nick Marshall. The former University of Georgia defensive back led Garden City Community College to a 7-4 record after that team posted a 2-7 record during 2011 without Marshall at quarterback. The Garden City offense was No. 15 in total offense for junior college teams and No. 6 in scoring offense with Marshall averaging 385 yards per game in total offense and scoring 37 offensive touchdowns in 11 games.

Nick Marshall is a threat passing and running.

There is no doubt Marshall is an electrifying quarterback capable of generating big plays, but he was also responsible for 23 turnovers during 2012. He will have to prove to the Auburn coaches that he won't have ball security issues directing the offense. As a three-year starter in high school, Marshall won 36 games as the QB for Wilcox County High, throwing for 7,984 yards and a Georgia high school record 102 touchdown passes. He led his team to two state championship games, winning one.

Coming in from the high school ranks to challenge Wallace and Frazier are Jeremy Johnson out of Carver in Montgomery and Jason Smith from McGill-Toolen in Mobile.

Johnson has a big enough frame (6-5, 225) to add more weight at the collegiate level. He finished his high school career with 8,732 passing yards and 85 touchdown passes, compiling a collegiate passer rating of 162.4. Carver posted a 28-10 record with Johnson as the starter the last three seasons and he was the No. 24 rated quarterback in the nation, according to

Learning a new offense and adjusting to collegiate level of competition at the same time might be too much to ask of a true freshman, regardless of Johnson's abilities. With Marshall, Auburn has a quarterback with great high school success and experience at the collegiate level.

Like Marshall and Johnson, Smith brings to Auburn a reputation as an outstanding athlete. During the past two seasons, McGill-Toolen compiled a 23-3 record with Smith leading the offense with 2,828 yards passing, 1,589 yards rushing and 55 combined offensive touchdowns.

Jason Smith is shown in action playing for McGill-Toolen.

At 6-1, 187 pounds, Smith is the smallest of Auburn's five scholarship quarterbacks, but Malzahn says he admires the speed and athletic ability Smith brings to the table. If he is unable to play quarterback at the collegiate level, Smith has the skill set to be a major contributor as a wide receiver.

Going into preseason practice Auburn's head coach says the plan is to let the five QBs compete for the starting job and then adjust the offense to fit the player who emerges as the starter. "From year to year you have got to change and really, week to week, you have got to put new wrinkles in," Malzahn says.

If the Tigers find the right guy to lead their offense, there should be a lot more opportunities for explosive plays this fall for a group that needs to improve it about everything it is doing after really struggling last year.

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