AUBURN, Ala. — A scan up and down the 2005 EA Sports Elite 11 roster reveals a Who’s Who of college football quarterbacks.
The SEC accounted for three stars — Florida’s Tim Tebow, Georgia’s Matthew Stafford and Ole Miss’ Jevan Snead. Juice Williams is entering his fourth year as a starter at Illinois, while Kansas State’s Josh Freeman did so well in his three years that he left early for the pros.
Colorado’s Cody Hawkins, Washington’s Jake Locker and California’s Kevin Riley have started during their careers. And Mitch Mustain, after a messy divorce from Arkansas, will be in consideration for one of the most coveted starting jobs in college football this year at Southern Cal.
Then there’s Neil Caudle, overlooked by most in his three years at Auburn, hoping that the arrival of a new coaching staff also means a new lease on life.
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“When you’re not playing, a fresh start is always a good thing,” he said. “You get a clean slate with the new coaching staff.”
The 6-foot-3, 199-pound Caudle has spent the spring locked in a three-way battle with incumbent Kodi Burns and Barrett Trotter, the end of which doesn’t appear to be near.
Both head coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn have said none of the three has done anything to separate himself from the pack halfway through the spring, and they acknowledged that might be the case even after A-Day on April 18.
“Coach Malzahn has said that when one of us starts to play better than the others, then he’ll decide,” Caudle said.
No one has yet, meaning Caudle hasn’t distinguished himself, but the former star from Spain Park High in Hoover, Ala., also hasn’t been summarily dismissed like he has most of his college career.
After redshirting in 2006, Caudle played in mop-up duty of one game in 2007, Brandon Cox’s final season on the Plains. Once Cox graduated, Caudle didn’t fit into Auburn’s plans, an onlooker as last season’s quarterback competition between Burns and junior college transfer Chris Todd raged from the spring through the first few weeks of the season.
Even once offensive coordinator Tony Franklin was fired, Caudle never entered the discussion. Burns got the initial nod, and when the offense’s continued struggles forced Tommy Tuberville to open himself up to any and all ideas, the discussion revolved around taking the redshirt off Trotter, with little to no mention of Caudle.
“I know we were a little bit desperate, but it was kind of disheartening for that to happen,” said Caudle, who got some action at the end of the UT-Martin game.
“But I think it all worked out in the end, and this is a new year.”
Caudle has made the most of the opportunity, focusing on arm strength during winter workouts while trying to eliminate his interception-prone past, a must in a Malzahn offense that needs a capable decision maker under center.
It’s been a slow process. Caudle, Burns and Trotter have rotated evenly while Todd continues to recover from offseason surgery. It limits the number of reps each gets while learning the new offense, something Caudle called “a necessary evil.”
If no starter is named by the end of camp for a second straight season — a near certainty from the sounds of things — Auburn could put itself at a major disadvantage in the summer.
“It takes off a lot of pressure on that guy,” Caudle said. “He can really go out there and be comfortable and start getting his timing down with the receivers and really start meshing the offense together.”
But to Caudle, not knowing who the starter will be is better than knowing it won’t be him.
With two years of eligibility remaining, the former top-notch recruit has heard the now-or-never talk but simply brushes it off.
“You could have said that last year too,” he said. “I try not to put too much pressure on myself. I think if I did that it would hurt me. … You can’t think of it like that.”