Much has been written recently about which of Auburn’s inexperienced quarterbacks will win the starting job this fall. Perhaps the better question is: “Does it matter?”
Judging by Gus Malzahn’s track record, not so much.
Since joining the college ranks after a record-breaking high school head coaching career in Springdale, Arkansas, Malzahn’s quarterbacks have consistently produced at a high level. That he has never had the luxury of coaching the same quarterback for consecutive seasons and only twice inherited a quarterback who started more than half of his team’s games the year before only adds to his mystique.
Under Malzahn’s tutelage, chances are that whoever leads his offense this year will produce. Looking at the eye-popping numbers his quarterbacks have recorded over the course of his coaching career should serve to set some level of expectations for Auburn’s 2011 season—if not raise them a little higher than most are currently predicting.
Mitch Mustain and Casey Dick, Arkansas – 2006:
You’d expect the Season of Cam to be the statistical outlier among Malzahn’s former QBs, but the real sore thumb sticking out on his resume is his first and only season at Arkansas in 2006. It was the only time he has had multiple starters and would be the only coaching stop where he wasn’t also quarterbacks coach, instead coaching the wide receivers. Mitch Mustain, who played for Malzahn at Springdale and who was the No. 1 recruit in the nation according to most services, followed his high school coach (or vice versa?) to Fayetteville and became the starter after an opening season loss to USC. Despite leading the team to victory in each of his starts, including a win over then second-ranked Auburn, Mustain was replaced with head coach Houston Nutt’s preferred signal caller Casey Dick. Nutt favored a conservative approach that relied on a strong running game that featured Darren McFadden and Felix Jones; the slightly more seasoned Dick seemed to be the safer choice. As a result, Mustain and Dick threw the ball only 132 times each and completed only about half of their passes. The two combined for 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns with 15 interceptions and an average passer rating of 123.1. While not great, those numbers were good enough to help the Razorbacks to a 10-4 record and a trip to Atlanta as SEC West champions. But the (reported) battles between Nutt and Malzahn, led to the latter taking a job at Tulsa following the season.
Paul Smith, Tusla – 2007:
In his first year as co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Tulsa, Malzahn inherited 2006 starter Paul Smith. Smith had previously completed over 66 percent of his passes and thrown for 2,727 yards, 15 touchdowns and 9 interceptions with a 141.0 rating. Solid numbers in almost any offense, but he would have to learn an entirely new system for his senior year. In that new system in 2007, those numbers were supercharged. Smith would explode for 5,065 yards, 47 touchdown passes, 19 interceptions and a 159.85 rating in leading his team to a 10-4 record. He also tacked on 13 rushing touchdowns for good measure. Staggering.
David Johnson, Tulsa – 2008:
In his follow up season with the Golden Hurricane, Malzahn’s weapon of choice was little used 2007 back-up David Johnson. Johnson only attempted a Trotter-esque eight passes the season before, but he fit perfectly in Tulsa’s new offensive machine. He threw for over 4,000 yards, along with 46 touchdowns, 18 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 178.7 while leading the team to 661 points on the season (over 47 per game) and an 11-3 record.
Chris Todd, Auburn – 2009:
Gene Chizik quickly hired Malzahn to be his first offensive coordinator at Auburn. Chris Todd would end up being the beneficiary. Todd had lost his starting job the previous year and was thought by many fans to have taken his last snap as a Tiger after posting totals of 86/156 (55 percent), 903 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions in seven games for the disappointing 2008 squad. Given another chance with Malzahn, he improved his numbers across the board. Todd completed over 60 percent of his passes in 2009 and set a then Auburn record for touchdown passes with 22, against only six interceptions. His rating of 145.73 was nearly 40 points better than his first season as a starter. Auburn finished 8-5 with a bowl win over Northwestern.
Cam Newton, Auburn – 2010:
Having proven his coaching abilities with mere mortals, Malzahn had a chance to really see what he could do when handed the immense physical talents of Cam Newton. All he did in his one year with Newton was coach him to a 66 percent completion percentage for 2,854 yards, 30 touchdowns, seven interceptions. Newton also ran for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns. Oh, and he caught one touchdown, too. His rating of 182.05 was second in the nation (by only .58) and he went from unproven JUCO transfer to Heisman winner to undefeated National Champion to the first pick in the 2011 NFL Draft thanks in part to the man calling the plays. This story is well chronicled.
The Tigers’ 2011 crop of Kiehl Frazier, Clint Moseley and Barrett Trotter may not be Cam Newton (Or Chris Todd. Or David Johnson. Or Paul Smith), but inexperience has never slowed Malzahn down in the past. Most Auburn fans would be more than happy to just see an average season for a Malzahn quarterback in 2011… because an average season for a Malzahn quarterback is roughly 11 wins, 60 percent completions, 3,295 yards, and 32.8 touchdowns.
Riley Downing graduated from Auburn in 1999 and moved to the Washington, D.C. area, where he has been stuck ever since. He makes the most of his long daily commute and forfeits sleep in an attempt to keep up with everything Auburn and cling to his brief moment on The Plains. Follow him on Twitter—@FearlessandTrue.
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