AU Spring Football Preview: Part Nine

Continuing our preview of spring football practice, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tony Franklin takes a look at his four QBs and some of the possibilities.

Auburn, Ala.--Tommy Tuberville is still the head coach of the Auburn football program, but in many ways 2008 will seem like a new era of football on the Plains.

A move was made at both coordinator positions, and three-year starting quarterback Brandon Cox must also be replaced.

The race for Cox's old job will begin on Sunday afternoon between returning quarterbacks Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle, as well as newcomers Chris Todd and DeRon Furr.

Hired between the Iron Bowl and the Chick-fil-A Bowl, Tony Franklin gave a promising preview of the new offensive plan of attack by racking up more than 400 yards against Clemson, one of the top defensive teams in the country in 2007. Cox did most of the throwing and Burns did most of the running from quarterback, but now it's a wide-open competition heading into spring.

"They're working out on their own and all you can see right now is their determination in the early morning workouts, their agility and all of that stuff," Franklin says. "You already know what Kodi can do with all of that type of stuff. I've been really surprised at Neil Caudle about how well he runs. He really works extremely hard and he runs much better than I thought.

Caudle has been hit by the injury bug since high school, but will have his opportunity to win the job this spring.

"The Furr kid is a great athlete," he continues. "He can do so many things already. For a high school kid and to compete the way he has, he's shown a lot of determination, a lot of character and a lot of ability. And then Chris, I've been surprised at Chris. He runs better than he did when I saw him in high school. He's gotten bigger. He's more of a man now than he was a boy. He's not a speed-burner, but he's really competitive and much more agile then when I remembered him."

Todd spent two years in Lubbock, one as a redshirt and the other as a backup, and another season at Hutchinson prior to transferring to Auburn in January.

All four quarterbacks have something working in their favor heading into spring drills. Franklin had the nine practices before the bowl game to work with Burns and Caudle, while Todd's history with the offensive coordinator goes back to 2002 as Elizabethtown High School was one of Franklin's clients. Furr, an early graduate from Carver High School in Columbus, Ga., has a combination of size and athleticism unmatched by the others.

"Everybody has been a part of it in some form or fashion," Franklin says of his system. "There is not any doubt that the Furr kid coming in has definitely made a lot of plays with his feet as well as with his arm. Kodi has proven at this level that he can make plays with his feet and he's made a couple of plays with his arm. Chris has played at this level as well and has proven that he can make plays with his arm. We'll see whether or not he can make plays with his feet. Neil played in something similar to this in high school. He's just been unlucky that he's gotten hurt. Hopefully he can stay healthy."

Around the country the spread is catching on and players like Tim Tebow, Pat White and Dennis Dixon have had remarkable success on the ground. On the other end of the spectrum, gunslingers like Colt Brennan and Graham Harrell have put up eye-popping numbers through the air. Franklin says that in his version of the spread there is a closer balance of what he's looking for out of a quarterback.

"In a magical world you've got Michael Vick with Peyton Manning put together," he jokes. "Since there's not any of those running around you see and hope a guy can run at least a 4.85 and be a tough guy, hard-nosed, physical and all of that stuff. It's wonderful if you've got a guy that can throw incredibly well and make somebody miss in space. Again, for some reason when God makes them he just doesn't make them that way most of the time.

"Basically, he just has to run well enough to occasionally avoid the rush," Franklin adds. "Most of the time that's just great feet, sliding in the pocket to avoid. There are a lot of fast guys that can't avoid the rush, and then there are a lot of slow guys. When you watch Tom Brady or Peyton Manning, neither of those guys would probably beat 5-flat in the 40, but they both can avoid the rush. I'm more interested in that. Then hopefully occasionally when we call a run he can make a play."

Franklin's system likely won't look like that of Mike Leach or Rich Rodriguez and will have much closer balance between the pass and run, but the end game is finding a quarterback that gives Auburn the best chance of winning.

"You do whatever you've got to do to win," Franklin explains. "To me it doesn't matter. I think that the more balanced you are the more happy you are as a team because everybody is involved. When you've got an X, a Y, a Z and an H and they all catch 30 to 70 or 80 balls, they're all happy. I think that when one or two people control the ball all the time, you can still win.

"People have proven that as long as everybody pulls together and you're unselfish, but I don't think you're as happy winning. We've got a lot of playmakers, so our deal is to try to involve everybody. Whoever can get everybody involved is probably going to win the job."

Burns ran the zone read offense at Northside High School in Fort Smith, Ark., before playing mostly as a backup at Auburn as a true freshman last season. During the regular season with Al Borges as the coordinator, he proved capable of running the draw and option out of the shotgun, and then he did a solid job of running the zone read in the bowl game, which is going to be an important part of Franklin's offense.

"They're definitely going to have to run the zone read, which is not that big of a deal to do," Franklin explains. "There are not that many pulls in a ball game, but if somewhere during that ball game the pull read is there they've got to be able to pull it and make three, four or five yards.

"They're probably going to have to be able to pitch the ball on the option occasionally and they're definitely going to have to be able to run the quarterback draw, just like Brandon did in the bowl game."

Franklin has been pleasantly surprised with the agility of Caudle during bowl practices as well as the early morning winter workouts. Though his talent hasn't carried into games quite yet, Franklin says Caudle has some promising tools.

"The big thing is that Neil throws the straight-line balls good--the dig and he throws the curl good," he notes. "He throws the hitch good and he throws the fast screen well. He struggles some with corner route throws and balls that have to have a lot of air on it. He's struggled with those throws a little bit, so those are the things he'll have to get better at."

Todd threw for more than 10,000 yards in Franklin's system in high school before moving on to Texas Tech and Hutchinson. He was committed to Troy earlier in the recruiting process out of the community college, but changed his commitment to Auburn with the hiring of Franklin.

Furr is an early enrollee at Auburn after leading Carver to the state championship in December.

Though it's unusual for a true freshman quarterback to have an impact in the SEC, it has become less rare in recent years with Erik Ainge, Matthew Stafford, Tebow and Burns all seeing at least a fair amount of playing time in their first seasons on campus. Furr might not have the experience of his counterparts, but he won't be ruled out because of his age.

"I don't care," Franklin says of playing a freshman. "I never have cared about it. I think that it's hard for a freshman at quarterback to play, but there have been some in history who have. It doesn't happen very often though. It doesn't happen very often that they can be effective taking most every snap. Occasionally there is a special guy that can do that. If he proves that he's that special and he is much more special than the others, then he'll get that chance."

Another freshman, Barrett Trotter from Briarwood High, will also compete at quarterback this fall. However, Franklin hopes to have an idea for the 2008 season fairly quickly in spring.

"We'll start off trying to divide reps as equally as possible and then hopefully in two or three days I'll be able to make a decision on eliminating at least one guy by every rep they take, whether it's on a mesh drill or whether or not it's in a live rep is going to be counted as to how these guys do," Franklin says.

"I'll try to make up my mind as quickly as possible as to what they can do. Hopefully, in two weeks we can narrow it down to two guys.

"You hope you've got two great ones that are really fighting tooth and neck, because if you do that it means you're in good shape. If it ends up being one guy, fine, I don't have a problem making that decision. At Troy we made it in two days. I don't think that's going to happen here, but it could."

Burns, left, passed for 22 yards and a TD and rushed for 69 and another score against Clemson. Cox, right, threw for 211 yards in his finale.

With each quarterback having a different strength, a two-quarterback system is possible just like in the bowl game.

"I could see us doing it," Franklin notes. "It's worked. Florida did it with Tebow and Chris Leak. We did it in the bowl game and if you have to do it, you have to do it. It's nice when you've got one that can do everything. If not I don't have a problem doing that and it's not that big of a deal."

Spring practice is scheduled to begin on Sunday, Feb. 24 with A-Day set for Saturday, March 29.

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