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Auburn’s secrecy over starting quarterback: Calculating move or desperate one?

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson (6) warms up before the first half of an NCAA college football game against Jacksonville State, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Auburn, Ala.
Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson (6) warms up before the first half of an NCAA college football game against Jacksonville State, Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in Auburn, Ala. AP Photo

Auburn has played coy about its starting quarterback going into a Thursday night matchup against Kentucky.

The Tigers’ coaching staff is debating whether to give junior Jeremy Johnson a second shot, or stick with redshirt freshman Sean White.

On the Southeastern Conference’s weekly media teleconference, coach Gus Malzahn declined to reveal a starter, and called it a “game time decision.” It was the third time this week an Auburn coach put off naming a starter.

“We felt strong we needed to open the competition,” Malzahn said, repeating what he said earlier in the week about the quarterback battle. “We feel like it’s going to bring out the best in everybody, and really feel it has.”

Auburn is acting like its strategic decision not to announce a starter will somehow give them an edge over the Wildcats in a must-win game.

It’s hard to gauge what the deciding factor will be in the decision as the Malzahn has been reluctant to talk about any specifics other than pointing out that he feels both have improved.

The coach left open the possibility that the coaching staff hasn’t even made a decision with 24 hours to before kickoff.

When pressed on if Auburn was holding back the announcement as gamesmanship, the coach stuck to his guns.

“We’ll make that call right before we play,” Malzahn said.

It's easy to understand why fans might be scratching their heads when Malzahn and Auburn players express confidence in a quarterback situation that is more muddled than it was in the spring.

"Both of them are tremendous quarterbacks," Auburn linebacker Justin Garrett said. "I’m not sure who’s going to be starting. They have both been taking an equal amount of reps. Just whoever gets out there is who we trust and who the team is going to rally behind. I’m just ready to see who is going to be out there Thursday.”

While teams across the country have become increasingly secretive about their depth charts; especially when it comes to injuries, it makes little sense in the context of the Tigers’ situation with two quarterbacks who share many of the same strengths, and weaknesses.

The offensive game plan in White’s two starts is awfully similar to what it was during the early part of the season as Johnson led the offense.

White might be slightly more athletic than Johnson, but the coaching staff isn’t going to start treating the first-year player as a Nick Marshall-type runner with a number of designed runs.

Malzahn stated Auburn’s offensive philosophy multiple times in the past two weeks, calling the Tigers a “run, play-action” team. It will be the same with White, or Johnson under center.

Auburn threw the ball an average of 24 times in Johnson’s three starts with an average of 38 rushing attempts. White averaged 19 pass attempts, and the Tigers ran the ball an average of 49 times.

Those numbers might even be closer together if it wasn’t for how quickly Auburn feel behind in its loss to LSU.

It’s also striking how similar the production was under the two quarterbacks. Johnson averaged nine more passing yards than White – 157 to 148 – and the offense’s total production only increased by an average of 36 yards in the freshman’s brief tenure.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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