Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Coaches face big QB decisions

Three teams, three spring games, nine candidates to be their teams’ starting quarterback — and no definitive timetable for final decisions.

Auburn, Georgia and Alabama have plenty other key position battles this spring. But none are more scrutinized than the player that will become one of the team’s key leaders.

How the scenarios play out is anybody’s guess. One thing is for certain, though. Despite the fans and the media having their own preconceived depth charts, the coaches are evaluating subtleties of the position that matter much more than arm strength or high school resumes.

Alabama coach Nick Saban offered this insight into the decision.

“The guy that wins the quarterback job is going to be the guy that wins the team over with his ability to play on a consistent basis,” Saban said. “Make the kind of choices, decisions and show the kind of leadership to affect other people.”

It’s natural for everyone on the outside to read too much into spring game performances. Auburn’s A-Day game was Saturday, while Georgia and Bama have theirs coming up this Saturday.

“I have in my mind where I'd be right now if we played tomorrow,” said Auburn offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Rhett Lashlee said last week. “We don't play until Sept. 3 so I don't have to worry about that right now.”

How the players handle themselves in the offseason will be just as important as how they play in the spring games.

Each decision is equally important for different reasons. But the one that may loom the largest is Auburn’s.

Simply put, this may be a make or break season for Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. Reaching the national championship game in his first season in 2013 bought Malzahn some equity. But the Tigers have gone 15-11 since then and have lost nine of their last 11 SEC games.

Malzahn needs to win this year. To do that, he must make the right decision on his quarterback. Auburn’s program is built on its offense, and the offense is built on the quarterback.

John Franklin, the transfer from Florida State, can break down defenses with his speed. But can he throw the ball consistently and dependably? And at 170 pounds, can he withstand the hits he’s going to take from 275-pound defensive ends and 230-pound linebackers.

Jeremy Johnson and Sean White did some nice things last season splitting time. But Johnson has to improve his decision-making, and White is not as mobile as he needs to be to run the offense.

“We need somebody to make plays,” Lashlee said. “You've got to be a playmaker at quarterback to win and to win championships. You're going to be hard-pressed to find many guys who don't have that. Secondly, can you be a playmaker but protect the football. If you can't protect the football you're not going to play. That's kind of where we are with those guys. Who can make plays, protect the football and at the end of the day step on the field and make those 10 guys better, that's how we'll decide it.”

Saban has won at Alabama with five very different quarterbacks — John Parker Wilson, Greg McIlroy, AJ McCarron, Blake Sims and Jake Coker. That’s primarily because Bama has been so great on defense and has had such a strong running game that the Crimson Tide hasn’t been overly dependent on great quarterback play. One thing they all had in common. They improved substantially throughout their first season as the starter.

Junior Cooper Bateman has the experience. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett has the resume. Sophomore David Cornwell has the arm talent and the size (6-5, 234). Many fans have assumed that Barnett would win the job. But Saban’s history is going with experience suggests otherwise.

Then there’s Georgia. It’s hard to know anything right now because Kirby Smart has never been a head coach. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s history suggests that he values experience over raw talent. But this might be a unique situation for two reasons. One, freshman Jacob Eason might be so far superior to senior Greyson Lambert and junior Brice Ramsey that he makes the decision easy for Chaney and Smart. Two, there’s a bit of a grace period for the new coaching staff. The Bulldogs are talented enough to win the watered down SEC East. They won 10 games last season thanks in large part to a soft schedule. The schedule this year may be even softer, with the exception of opening against North Carolina instead of Louisiana-Monroe.

But with another strong recruiting class and a full year of players adjusting to the new coaching staff, the Bulldogs could be legitimate national contenders next season. They would be much more likely to do that if Eason has a season of SEC experience under his belt.

“The young man has great arm talent,” Smart said. “Sometimes arm talent can get you in trouble if you make poor decisions,” Smart said. “We’re trying to make sure he’s doing the right progression with the right check and throwing the ball to the right place. He’s had several times where he threw the ball to the wrong place but he made a hell of a play. You don’t want to take that out of a guy. You don’t want to over coach the guy.”

My guesses: Bateman will win the Alabama job. Johnson will win the Auburn job but Franklin will be used situationally. Lambert will start against North Carolina but Eason will win the job by mid-season.

Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer.com, @guerryclegg

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