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‘Live’ practices could help narrow field in Auburn’s quarterback competition

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn didn’t have much to say Thursday night about a quarterback competition in its infancy.

After the team’s second spring practice, Malzahn complimented all four players with their hat in the ring. The team practiced in helmets with Jeremy Johnson, Sean White, John Franklin III and Tyler Queen splitting reps at the position evenly.

“They're all four eager,” Malzahn said. “They want to be coached. They're flying around out there. All four have done some good things and they really want to get better. I feel good about the competition we have there. We'll continue to coach all four of those guys and see what happens.

Malzahn will have more to share about the competition later this spring when his plan is to run an unspecified number of live — full contact — practices.

“We’re able to go live this spring,” Malzahn said. “Usually when you do that, things separate a little quicker. If we do that it will be after spring break. That's something we've talked about, especially if no one really separates themselves.”

Johnson and White split time at the position last season, but neither played well enough to earn frontrunner status going into the spring.

Malzahn named Johnson Auburn’s starter after spring practice last year. He carried lofty expectations into the fall with his name even in the mix as an early Heisman candidate.

The Montgomery native struggled out of the gate throwing six interceptions in Auburn’s first three games. His lackluster showing on the road in week three against LSU forced the coaching staff to turn to White.

White lost his first career start against Mississippi State in week four, but bounced back with a win against San Jose State and a road win over Kentucky. The redshirt freshman showed an immediate grasp of the playbook despite modest numbers.

The two teammates swapped places again when a knee injury forced White out of the lineup before Auburn’s game against Texas A&M in early November.

White was used in a reserve role against Georgia and started Auburn’s bowl game, but it was Jeremy Johnson that led the team to a 31-10 victory over Memphis. Johnson scored the go-ahead touchdown the first time he touched the ball late in the third quarter.

After the game, Johnson vowed to come back for his senior year and win the starting job. Johnson threw for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns to seven interceptions while competing 60 percent of his passes.

“I’m a competitor and I’m going to compete,” Johnson said. “I got faith in myself to be the starting quarterback.”

White finished the season with a team-high 1,064 yards passing, but only one touchdown on 57 percent passing.

Both of Auburn’s experienced quarterbacks have their work cut out for them in a competition that could even expand in the fall when incoming true freshman Woody Barrett arrives on the Plains.

Franklin III’s shadow looms large despite his slight 6-foot-1 frame. The junior college transfer via Florida State landed in Auburn drawing comparisons to Nick Marshall. The high-profile early enrollee arrived on campus expecting to win the starting job.

“I think everybody saw that they struggled at quarterback,” Franklin said in January. “A blind man could tell you that.”

Queen is the long shot of the group as he recovers from shoulder surgery. The backup quarterback missed the entire 2015 season after undergoing a procedure Malzahn described as similar to Tommy John’s. He’s on a pitch count of 50 throws per practice this spring.

All four players will be under a microscope this spring as Malzahn charts everything that happens each practice to find the answer to Auburn’s offensive woes.

“Can he and the other guys -- can they be successful running our offense?” Malzahn said. “That’s really the bottom line, and everything that goes with it from on the field, off the field, leadership, making your teammates better. The unique thing about our offense, our quarterback’s got a chance to really influence the rest of his teammates. That’s what we’ll be looking for.”