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2010 A-U Pre-view: the QBs

Second in WBE’s season preview series. Previously: Expectations.

Go go Cam Newton.

THE CAST

The Starter: Cameron Newton (6’6″, 250, Jr.)

The Backups: Barrett Trotter (6’2″, 211, RSo.), Neil Caudle (6’3″, 198, Sr.)

The Outside Possibility: Clint Moseley (6’3″, 223, RFr.)

THE BREAKDOWN

Paul Smith, 2007: 60.1 completion percentage, 5,065 yards, 9.3 YPA, 47 TDs, 19 INTs, T-4 nationally in passer rating.

David Johnson, 2008: 64.5 completion percentage, 4,059 yards, 10.1 YPA, 46 TDs, 18 INTs, No. 2 nationally in passer rating.

Chris Todd, 2009: 60.4 completion percentage, 2,612 yards, 8.0 YPA, 22 TDs (a school record), 6 INTs, No. 3 in SEC in passer rating.

Those are the numbers produced by the quarterbacks who have enjoyed Gus Malzahn as an offensive coordinator. (Save, of course, those from his pseudo-coordinating year at Arkansas.) But they don’t tell you who those quarterbacks were, i.e., nobody. Smith was an anonymous three-star from Oklahoma who wound up staying home when no Big 12 teams were interested. Johnson was even less of a talent, a two-star nothing from Oregon. And as for Todd, well, it’s easy to forget this now, but he should have been a waste of a uniform by the time 2009 rolled around; between all the injuries and surgeries, the five years spent never making an impact on a college football field (that one game against Southern Miss excepted, I guess), the missed spring when trying to learn a new offensive system, and the fact that he wasn’t exactly a major stud himself even when coming out of high school, Todd shouldn’t have had a prayer of being productive at all, much less one of the more productive quarterbacks in the country.

But he was, just as Smith was, just as Johnson was. This is one baseline we can establish for Cam Newton’s season, coming as it will under the tutelage Gus Malzahn: he’ll be one of the more productive quarterbacks in the country. There’s no precedent for less.

But the pulse-quickening truth is that if that’s the baseline, there’s no precedent for Newton’s ceiling under Malzahn either. Trying to establish expectations for what Go Go Godzilla could accomplish this year based on what Dr. Gustav’s charges have accomplished before is pointless. For two reasons:

1. Forget the “zip code” cliche: when it comes to raw physical gifts, Malzahn has never had a player dwelling on the same continent with a five-star goliath like Newton. None of them were remotely as powerful, remotely as mobile, remotely as tall, and though Smith and Johnson had live arms, they didn’t have anything like the cannon Newton is toting around.

2. None of those earlier quarterbacks were more than “adequate” when it came to carrying the ball, and Todd, obviously, feel a good deal short of even being adequate. Newton, on the other hand …

No, that hasn’t gotten old yet. Anyway, Malzahn is so committed to using the quarterback in the running game that even in 2009, he had Todd running the speed option with regularity and the zone read on occasion. (The latter’s the play Caudle scored on from midfield against Ball State. Think Malzahn’s got the goods to teach it?) So what happens when he has a wrecking ball like Newton to execute them?

We don’t know. We haven’t seen it yet. But everything else that’s happened for quarterbacks and offenses under Malzahn suggests it’s going to be spectacular.

Of course, the bigger question is how well Newton can do when he has to throw the ball rather than tote it. Florida fans swear up and down he had a long, long way to go in this department in Gainseville, and neither his JUCO highlight reels nor his under-wraps A-Day performance have proven them definitively wrong.

But again: is Gus Malzahn really going to put a player on the field who can’t complete passes? He’s said himself that the gap between Newton and his backups isn’t really all that wide; we saw with Kodi Burns’s relatively rapid demotion to wide receiver that he’s simply not going to accept scatter-shot deliveries and poor decision-making. Reports out of scrimmages are that Newton’s touch has already improved dramatically–he was around for the spring, remember–and the very fact that it’s Malzahn doing the teaching suggests there’s more improvement to come. Johnson’s 65 percent mark isn’t under threat, probably, but there’s no reason we can’t see both a 60 percent completion rate and a huge yards-per-attempt as Newton’s howitzer allows him to connect on the bombs that, over the second half of last year, Todd could not.

Remember, too, that those deep shots are an integral part of Malzahn’s schemes. So when you put Newton’s entire package together, what you’re looking at is the perfect quarterback for Malzahn’s system, with twice as much preparation as Todd received (if not more), a better line, better receivers, better running game. If he’s even moderately accurate, and there’s nothing in Malzahn’s track record to suggest he won’t be, an All-SEC and possibly even All-American season is within reach.

Want some–arguably–even better news? Even if Newton gets hurt (or can’t get it done through the air, for whatever reason), the offense won’t miss more than the occasional beat. Whether the second-string job is won by Trotter or Caudle, either one would fit the Smith/Johnson profile to a T … pocket passers of some level of mobility with experience in the Malzahn system and arm enough to make all the throws required. At this stage–having had all spring and now all fall camp to battle, with no victor–it doesn’t matter which of the two would replace Newton. They’re interchangeable, both equally capable, both equally poised to do even more than Todd did (since their arms aren’t, you know, held together by jute twine). There’s no reason, their sterling A-Day outings included, to think either wouldn’t keep things humming.

So: I won’t say quarterback is the last position you should worry about as an Auburn fan, but between the first three guys on the depth chart, it’s pretty damn close. (Not that the fourth guy is chopped liver, either; Moseley’s the second-biggest of the four and by nearly every account has had a perfectly productive offseason. Still too early for him to overtake Trotter this season–particularly since Trotter could already be in the backup role–but he could position himself for a serious move up the pecking order next season.)

THE PREDICTION

Beset by nerves, Newton misses a few gimmes in the opener against Arkansas St., prompting a round of cynical “is this it?” remarks similar to those following A-Day … and then proceeds to lay waste to virtually everyone else on Auburn’s schedule, racking up the total yards by the thousands and eventually becoming recognized as one of the biggest dual-threat weapons in the country. One or two slightly-less-explosive, 14-of-29ish outings and the Mallett hype wind up all that stands between him and first-team all-conference honors. Predicting the best-case scenario is never smart, really, but (Todd’s third-down issues aside) Malzahn’s produced his quarterback’s best-case scenario every year he’s been in charge of one; I don’t see why that would stop this season.

Trotter’s youth wins him backup duty over Caudle, who sadly and unfortunately finishes his Auburn career without ever seeing more than garbage-time. Moseley continues to make strides but does not see the field.

THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE

4.37 stars

Photo by Jay Tate.

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