AUBURN, Ala. Auburn fans’ long nightmare is over.
Coach Gus Malzahn named Sean White as the starting quarterback for the team’s season-opener against Clemson on Sept. 3 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
White beat out Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III in a competition that started all the back in January. The coach notified the quarterbacks Thursday morning in individual meetings before telling the rest of the team.
“I feel blessed to be in this position and I feel responsible to lead this team against Clemson,” White said. “I’m happy that Coach put that responsibility on me and my teammates believe in me. I feel like they have a reason to believe in me. I think we’ll be ready to go come Saturday.”
Malzahn declined to outline the entire depth chart at the position with more than a full week of practice left until the opener, but made it clear White would get all the snaps with the first team as the team prepares for Clemson.
White split reps with Johnson and Franklin equally throughout the spring. The rotation remained the same up during the team’s two-week training camp.
As of Saturday, he didn’t even have a “pecking order” in the competition. White downplayed the coaching staff’s uncertainty on Thursday.
“It felt good that I felt like I earned my spot,” White said. “Definitely it’s more than if they tell you that you’re the starter early on. You don’t have to earn it and compete against two other great quarterbacks. I believe Jeremy and John are really good quarterbacks and I learn from them every single day. To be able to compete with them and it has made me better, no doubt.”
In naming White the starter Malzahn spoke at length about the competition for the first time since the start of camp.
Malzahn stuck to praising all three quarterbacks for “rolling up their sleeves” in recent weeks, but was reluctant to divulge any specific improvements the coaches were looking for each of the student-athletes to make.
The coach attempted to outline what changed at his post-practice press conference.
“It's a matter of just the need to name a starter to get a full week with the ones,” Malzahn said. “I think that's very important. That had a lot to do with it. We just decided that Sean White was the guy that won the job. It was a close race and we have confidence in Sean. Probably more importantly, his teammates have confidence in him.”
Malzahn wants to tailor the offense to White’s strengths, as he pledged to do with the winner of the competition at SEC Media Days in January.
“I think it's important the last week when you're starting to get specific,” Malzahn said. “We rotated receivers, we rotated running backs, but now you're to the point where you're really getting specific with the same 11 guys. I think that's very important for a quarterback to do and know exactly who he's throwing too and throw to the ones instead of sometimes throw to the twos, sometimes throw to the threes.”
Auburn previously turned to White at quarterback three weeks into last season when Johnson’s struggles in a lopsided 45-21 loss at LSU cost him the starting job.
White, who redshirted as a true freshman, made improvements each week until he injured his knee in an overtime loss to Arkansas. He played the next week against Ole Miss, but wasn’t 100 percent the rest of the season.
“It bothered me, but that’s no excuse,” White said. “I should have played better at the end of the season. If you’re going to play you have to go in there and play well. That’s the object. My focus this year is to stay healthy and build momentum on what I did the first half of last year. I still don’t believe I played as well as I could have, not even close. I feel like I’m ready to go and I’m 100 percent healthy.”
The Florida native finished with 1166 yards and one touchdown on 83 of 143 passing.
White had the best spring game of the three quarterbacks — his 50-yard completion to Marcus Davis was the first team’s offense best passing play — and called it a performance to “build on.”
“I feel like it's my job to lose,” White said after A-Day. “Coach hasn't said that but that's the attitude you have to have. Going in, I feel like it's my job to lose so I just got to bring it every day.”
White addressed the coaching staff bringing in Franklin to push the veteran quarterbacks. Auburn’s new starter never viewed the addition of a junior college transfer at midyear as a knock on his talent level.
“A lot of people have asked me that back home,” White said. “It’s the coach’s job to bring in somebody better than you every year, that’s their job, that’s why they get paid to put the best players they can find on the field.”
Franklin’s profile skyrocketed at the start of camp thanks to his part in a six-part Netflix docuseries “Last Chance U.” The then East Mississippi Community College-quarterback was one of the personalities director Greg Whiteley focused on during his four months on campus. “I love John Franklin,” Whiteley said. “He has the kind of bravado that’s Muhammad Ali-like.”
While the documentary highlighted Franklin’s brash personality, it also put a spotlight on a quarterback that had yet to take advantage of his natural talents.
“John has every tool in the world,” EMCC quarterback coach Clint Trickett said in the early episodes.
Franklin’s talent wasn’t enough as EMCC’s coaching staff turned to a more traditional pocket passer Wyatt Roberts the starter.
Auburn bet on Franklin’s potential seeing a quarterback in the mold of Nick Marshall, a quarterback he played on Florida State’s scout team during preparation for the 2014 BCS Championship.
“I felt like I could this everyday,” Franklin said before enrolling. “It was probably my favorite two weeks of the season.”
Franklin’s upside in the run game wasn’t enough to overcome a general lack of experience. For a quarterback who didn’t start playing the position until his junior year in high school, he came to the Plains with too much ground to make up.
White acknowledges the offense might have looked a little difference with a run threat like Franklin, but told everyone listening not to discount his ability to thrive in all aspects of Auburn’s patented zone-read offense.
“I believe I will get a chance to run a little bit,” White said. “I wouldn’t say I’m Nick Marshall, but I definitely think I can run better than I showed last year due to being young and injured.”
For Johnson, the announcement closes the door on a once promising starting career. The quarterback made two successful appearances for Auburn as a backup to Marshall in 2013, but never lived up to the hype that followed.
Johnson finished the season with 1,054 yards and 10 touchdowns on 95 of 157 passing, but turned the ball over seven times (six interceptions) in the first three games.
The highlight of the Montgomery native’s season was a cameo appearance in the Birmingham Bowl against Memphis. The first time he touched the ball he threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jason Smith in the third quarter.
“We just have to work hard in the offseason, keep sticking together and handling adversity the way we did this year,” Johnson said.
Wide receiver Marcus Davis spent a few minutes talking to Johnson after the decision was announced and is proud of how his longtime teammate handled the disappointing news.
“Jeremy is a real good guy off the field, a team guy, family guy,” Davis said. “He told me he is going to do whatever it takes to help the team and that’s the type of thing we need positive vibes.”
Johnson is also dealing with the recent death of his grandfather. According to a reporter in the Montgomery Advertiser, Ojedita Johnson Sr died in a car accident Wednesday night.
White is hopeful the relationship between the three quarterbacks doesn’t change.
“None of us have any hard feelings,” White said.
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