Sean White (above) finished the 2015 season as Auburn's starting quarterback.
Last season Auburn's offense finished No. 102 nationally in generating plays of 20 yards or more. The Tigers averaged an explosive play every 18.2 snaps during the 2015 season with the national average being one every 14.7 snaps.
The immediate assumption was the Tigers lacked offensive playmakers last season, but sometimes the issue is merely the inability to make plays. The lack of explosive plays can be the result of schemes, play calling and execution. Though talent can make a significant difference in performance, it is not the only attribute to building an explosive offense.
The Southern Mississippi Golden Eagles led the nation in generating 20-yard plays last season with one every 9.5 snaps. Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee knows the importance of making these type of plays. “The first two years...in ’13 and ’14, we had the best offense for a two-year period in Auburn history, third best in the history of the SEC,” Lashlee said. “Why was that? Well, we had guys making plays.”
From 2010-2015 the average national ranking of the participants in the national championship game in creating explosive plays was No. 23, with nine of 12 ranked in the Top 25.
Of the plays of 20 yards or more generated by FBS teams from 2010-2015, nearly 70 percent have come via the passing game. With seven of ten explosive plays coming through the air, it is essential to possess a consistent passing game to make a run for a championship.
The average national ranking in pass efficiency of the Southeastern Conference champion from 2000-2015 is No. 16. Just as important as talent is identifying your playmakers and giving them the opportunity to make plays. This was the case with the 2009 Tigers as multiple players with minimal experience became major contributors that season. The quartet of Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery, Eric Smith and Onterio McCalebb accounted for 51 impact plays, nearly 43 percent of the team’s plays of 15 yards or longer.
Auburn had playmakers available last season, but an assortment of reasons prevented the Tigers from maximizing their talents. Quarterback issues set the offense back not once, but twice. Once Sean White began to gain experience as the starter, he suffered an injury, which meant the return of Jeremy Johnson.
The mental collapse of Duke Williams that led to his dismissal slammed the door on his finishing strong as a senior. It took half the season for Jovon Robinson to understand the necessity of being committed to living up to his full potential.
The quarterback situation affected the play calling as there was a tendency to be conservative once Johnson struggled early on and to allow White to grow into the starting role. Consistency at the quarterback position can make a world of difference in winning and losing. Over the past 65 seasons of Auburn football there have been 37 teams to average at least 20 pass attempts per game. The 18 Auburn teams with a pass rating of 130 or better compiled a winning percentage of 79 percent. The remaining 19 teams had a combined winning percentage of 59 percent.
The transition at the quarterback position from 2004 to 2005 is a prime example of the difference in quarterback performance. In 2005 Auburn returned its entire receiving corps from 2004, but sophomore Brandon Cox had to replace Jason Campbell at quarterback. The wide receivers caught 129 passes in 2005, equaling the 129 during the 2004 season. The difference in production was glaring with the receivers averaging 17.1 yards per reception in 2004, dropping to 14.4 yards per catch in 2005.
Auburn’s wide receivers caught 23 touchdown passes during 2004 and 14 during 2005. The pass offense produced 29 pass plays of 30 yards or more in 2004 and only 13 during 2005. Cox was a solid performer at quarterback, but he lacked the arm strength to stretch opposing defenses vertically the way Campbell did as the starting quarterback. Despite being Auburn’s starting quarterback for three seasons, Cox had only one touchdown pass of 40 yards or more. In comparison, Nick Marshall produced 12 touchdown passes of 40 yards or more during his two seasons as the starter.
During spring camp Gus Malzahn announced he would be more hands on when it came to the offense in 2016. His intent is to return to the formula that made him successful in the past. “We are a run, play-action team,” the head coach stated. “We need to run the football. I think the big thing from our standpoint is the explosive plays. When we are playing good football, we have those explosive plays.”
John Franklin (5) joined the team in January and was able to participate in spring training.
Quarterback John Franklin could be the centerpiece that opens up Auburn’s running game in 2016. With his speed and running ability, the temptation is there to build the offense around him in a similar fashion the offense was built around Marshall during Auburn’s 2013 championship season. Because Malzahn considers Marshall to be one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks to come through the Southeastern Conference, it will be a considerable challenge for Franklin to duplicate Marshall's success.
Marshall had a quarterback rating of 126.6 during his first five starts at Auburn. During his final eight starts in 2013 he produced a passer rating of 159.8. He proved to be a proficient passer down the stretch to go along with his running attributes. Franklin has the potential to be a gifted runner in Auburn’s read-option attack, but he has yet to prove he can be a capable passer at the collegiate level.
Recognizing the surrounding talent before the season begins will be essential for a strong start. Malzahn’s offense has always been about making plays by providing an opportunity for players to maximize their existing talents. If Auburn can settle in at the quarterback position, all the other offensive pieces should fall into place. The Tigers failed to secure an offensive identity during 2015, which is needed to make explosive plays consistently. Finding their identity in August will be a must before they take to the field against Clemson.