Johnson, White or TBA: Auburn's QB situation in need of fix
Dec. 31, 2015
Auburn's bowl game did nothing to clear up the uncertainty at quarterback going into the offseason.
Jeremy Johnson delivered a late-game spark but attempted only one pass in the Tigers' 31-10 victory over Memphis in Wednesday's Birmingham Bowl. Sean White played most of the game but was intercepted twice and had one returned for a touchdown.
The up-and-down quarterback play helped derail a season when Auburn, which finished 7-6, had been expected to contend for at least a Southeastern Conference Western Division title. Improving quarterback play is the most obvious offseason priority.
"Everybody on the team, we're going to get right to work," White said. "That starts with me. Obviously when you don't play well in the bowl game, that just gives you extra motivation. I didn't need any extra motivation, but that gives it to me.
"That'll motivate me all offseason to play well and not let my team down like I did at the end of that second quarter."
Afterward, Johnson said he would return for his senior season amid speculation that he might seek a transfer.
Given the uneven play of both White and Johnson, a newcomer could have a strong shot at winning the job. Junior college transfer John Franklin III has signed a letter of intent and plans to enroll in January.
Auburn's greatest success at the position while coach Gus Malzahn was either offensive coordinator or the head man has come with athletic JUCO transfers Cam Newton and Nick Marshall.
The dual-threat Franklin spent two seasons at Florida State before transferring to East Mississippi Community College, where he split time as a third-year sophomore with Wyatt Roberts.
Johnson, who threw for an 11-yard touchdown and ran for another score in the bowl, said he welcomes the competition.
"All I can do is work on myself," said the junior, who opened the season regarded as a potential Heisman Trophy contender. "I'm a competitor. I'm going to compete, and I've got faith in myself to be the starting quarterback."
Johnson was benched early in the season after throwing six interceptions in the first three games. White took over for five games before sustaining a knee injury, but produced only one touchdown pass.
Neither managed to get Malzahn's normally productive, up tempo offense going. Auburn finished the bowl ranked 110th nationally in passing offense.
Quarterback isn't the only lingering question or issue for Auburn heading into the offseason. Malzahn said after the game that he's hired LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to replace Will Muschamp in that position.
Steele is charged with trying to improve a defense that loses players like linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and defensive backs Jonathan Jones and Blake Countess.
Defensive linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, two of Auburn's top defenders, both are eligible for the NFL draft. Malzahn hasn't given any hint about the underclassmen's plans.
"I'll talk to a few of them and we'll see what happens," he said.
The defense does have promising freshmen like starting cornerback Carlton Davis and backup defensive end Byron Cowart.
The coaches also have built a recruiting class currently ranked in the Top 10.
If the Birmingham Bowl didn't settle the quarterback situation, it did give the Tigers some positive feelings to end the season. Auburn had lost its first two bowls under Malzahn, including the national championship game against Florida State two years ago.
The Tigers also were competitive in the regular-season finale against No. 2 Alabama.
"The thing that stood out to me about this team is they stuck together, they played hard," Malzahn said. "There wasn't one time when people said, 'They didn't play hard. They quit.' These guys played their tail off. The future is very bright. I think you could see that (Wednesday) with the momentum that we have for next year."