A tumultuous ’98 season left former Auburn quarterback Ben Leard’s football career at a crossroads.
Leard’s attempt to fill Dameyune Craig’s shoes went off the rails thanks to his ineffectiveness during a 1-5 start. Defenses teed off on the then-sophomore who threw seven interceptions while completing less than 50 percent of his passes.
When Leard was benched midway through the season, he was feeling the disappointment from all sides.
“Everyone pretty much wrote me off,” Leard said referring in equal measures to fans and coaches.
Leard’s lack of a relationship with Auburn’s quarterbacks coach Jimbo Fisher added to the turmoil heading into the offseason. The quarterback had a hard time handling Fisher’s aggressive in-your-face coaching style.
“It wasn’t something that I was accustomed to with Jimbo,” Leard said. “I’m not sure if he’s still like that, but it was tough. I didn’t have the maturity to know how to handle that style.”
Enter Noel Mazzone.
Ole Miss coach Tommy Tuberville brought his offensive coordinator with him to the Plains when he was hired to replace Terry Bowden.
“I was in a place where I was considering whether or not I wanted to play and where I wanted to play,” Leard said. “I didn’t have a clear answer from Jimbo (Fisher) if Auburn even wanted me back.”
Mazzone offered all the quarterbacks on Auburn’s roster a clean slate, promising an open competition in the spring that would have little to do with past performance.
The new offensive coordinator’s focus with Leard had little to do with the quarterback’s throwing motion or ability to study a defense.
“I was down and out,” Leard said. “My confidence was shot, he gave me a shot in the arm I needed.”
Auburn is preparing to welcome Mazzone back to Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday. The offensive guru jumped from the Pac-12 back to the SEC West during the offseason to run Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin’s offense.
Leard sees similarities in his situation in ‘99 to the one Mazzone inherited at Texas A&M with graduate transfer Trevor Knight. The former Oklahoma quarterback went from MVP of the 2014 Sugar Bowl to demoted in less than a year.
The early returns on the partnership — Knight is 43 of 79 for 583 yards with four touchdowns in two games — aren’t a surprising to Leard.
“It’s what coach does, he helps reincarnate a quarterback’s confidence,” Leard said. “He knows how to develop guys. You look at Knight who was kind of pushed aside at Oklahoma, but now has the chance for a second life.”
Auburn’s former quarterback rattles of a series of quarterbacks including Philip Rivers and Brock Osweiler who view Mazzone as a key figure in their rise to the ranks of the NFL.
Leard didn’t reach the league, but he looked like a completely different quarterback during a two-year run as Auburn’s starter from 1999-2000. Leard went 12-6 (8-4 SEC) completing 64 percent of his passes (332 of 513) for 3,975 yards with 27 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.
One way Mazzone endears himself to players is with a coaching style that’s a complete 180 from what Leard experienced with Fisher.
“He wouldn’t berate or dog the quarterbacks at practice in front of the team,” Leard said. “In the meeting room, he might chew us out pretty good, but he never wanted to make it so the team didn’t have confidence in us. He wanted guys to believe in us if we had to make a check on a fourth down.”
Leard expects Knight to join the long list of Mazzone’s previous quarterbacks who speak highly of the coordinator.
“It was a real rise from the ashes story for me,” Leard said. ”He made it fun again, that’s what he does. It’s his attitude. He makes football fun.”