The Tigers take the field for A-Day 2016. pic.twitter.com/3Zvb4rKexm
— College & Magnolia (@CollegeAndMag) April 9, 2016
More than one member of the Auburn Twitterati responded to the QB-centric grousing during A-Day by mentioning that Cam Newton his own divine self hadn’t exactly blown our orange-and-blue socks off in his sole spring appearance. Which surprised me — if I remembered not coming away from that A-Day thinking “this is one of the most imposing athletes in the history of American sport and the bedrock of a national title run,” as I should have, I did recall thinking “well, this kid ain’t missing out on the starting job to make way for Barrett Trotter,” at least.
But my memory can be faulty. The Internet’s, fortunately, is not. What I wrote immediately post-A-Day in 2010:
Like everyone else (I think), I wish Newton had looked a little sharper. The overthrow to [Jay] Wisner [!!! — ed.] in the end zone is both the kind of throw we all know he has to make and that we’ve all been worried he wouldn’t be able to.
But you don’t get a much smaller or less helpful sample size than eight passes in a spring game. Assuming that he hits that easy TD pass 9 times out of 10 and then we just happened to see the one time, there’s no reason to be discouraged by Newton’s performance.
On the contrary, the biggest takeaway from the spring game QBs is to be encouraged by the position as a whole. Even if A-Day was a bad omen and Newton does wind up being mostly hype … if Caudle’s going to play like that, how much do we care? Again, it was just the spring game, but Caudle did look every bit the guy who knows the offense inside and out and frankly runs the zone read even more smoothly than Newton does. [!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! — ed.] Do we have any evidence yet that Caudle can’t at least match Todd’s performance from a year ago, if not improve on it? …
The point of all this: maybe Newton’s still the savior that lets Auburn’s offense take the quantum leap forward we’re all hoping for, and maybe he’s not. But even if it’s the latter, Gus Malzahn is going to be able to find someone out of these four candidates who’ll be ready to make this offense a better unit than it was last year. The guy most likely to do that is still Cam Newton–three weeks of “he’s the guy” certainty isn’t undone in eight passes, is it?–but Malzahn is too good a coach and the returning QBs are too comfortable in this system not to see improvement at the quarterback position.
AHAHAHAHAHA oh man oh man oh man, 2010 Jerry, you have no idea how silly you’re going to look in six years. And given that this is clearly written in the context of some wider Cam-centric hand-wringing, it’s fair to say the “even Cam didn’t look good at A-Day” crowd had it right, and my memory had it wrong. As “exception that proves the rule” as the comparison feels, it’s a fair point — if a Gus Malzahn A-Day can’t even make the immortals walking among us look good, what chance does Jeremy Johnson have?
There’s also this: maybe the Auburn defense … doesn’t … suck? Even without Carlton Davis, maybe the gains over the season’s final weeks and put on display in Birmingham weren’t a mirage? Maybe with a fully armed and operational Carl Lawson to worry about, even functional offenses could have hiccups? Maybe Tre Williams and Deshaun Davis are ready to be at least what Kris Frost and Cass McKinzy were, maybe more? Maybe — and I know how crazy this sounds, given that Gus Malzahn remains the head coach of this football team — Auburn’s offense isn’t as much a problem as its defense is a strength?
Maybe, just maybe, we should be — to borrow the same italicization of six years ago — encouraged rather than dis-, given that the overwhelming majority of issues in the Malzahn era have come on the defensive rather than offensive side of the ball? Gus’s offense ran completely rampant in the 2009 and 2014 A-Days, and yeah, those teams were a hell of a lot easier on the eyes than the 2015 edition, but neither one wound up good enough to accomplish what this team will need to accomplish in 2016, either. To judge by 2010 — and 2013, though Marshall’s absence from that spring had a lot to do with that — a few offensive struggles might be a positive omen, not a negative one.
Right? This makes sense, right? Tell me I’m right.
Because holy crap, you guys, my initial reaction to the first-team offense going 1-of-10 on third downs against the second-team defense was not to be encouraged about the D. On first viewing, my response to settling for multiple field goals inside the 10 after a whole season of settling for field goals inside the 10 wasn’t “awesome job, Kevin Steele.” Just A-Day, I know, just A-Day, but still: watching Auburn open up running tempo, hurrying to the line on third-and-short, getting stuffed on an obvious run, and then abandoning it for nearly the rest of the game did not feel like the start of the dramatic offensive overhaul needed to win the number of games Malzahn needs to win this fall.
But ultimately, I — and I think a lot of other Auburn fans — could easily deal with general offensive meh-ness if I had faith there was a quarterback on the roster who could make us forget the meh-ness when August arrives. White came closest Saturday, but with the Memphis pick-six not even five months behind us, committing two easily avoidable red zone turnovers (the dropped INT counts) doesn’t calm the nerves. Johnson looked solid in the second half, but of course not until after he’d looked lost in the first. Franklin hit the one (fortunate) bomb and threw for 2.1 yards an attempt otherwise. Yeah, Cam Newton looked mortal on A-Day. But none of the current candidates are Cam Newton. We know this. And there’s (probably) no Nick Marshall set to show up between now and Week 1, either.
But, again: Franklin couldn’t use his legs properly in an orange jersey. White was somewhere between solid and excellent for all but two correctable plays, reason enough to think the pre-injury White who played well enough to beat Arkansas in Fayetteville — or an even better version — could still make an appearance this fall. And Johnson, God bless him, still has the same outrageous physical gifts that got him the starter’s nod this time last year.
And, again: they faced a defense that might be better than any defense we’ve seen at A-Day in a long, long time.
So I dunno, man. Lawson didn’t get hurt; that’s reason enough to be excited. Past that, it feels like one of those Magic Eye puzzles circa your favorite mall in 1994. If you stand exactly the right distance away from A-Day, cross your eyes just so, tilt your head the correct direction, maybe you can make out the dinosaur, or flying saucer, or something meaningful about Auburn’s 2016 football season. But I never could see anything in those puzzles — and as 2010 Jerry so aptly demonstrates, even the things I think I see probably aren’t there.
A few more insta-reactions:
Attendance. When even weather like that couldn’t nudge the mark over 50,000, safe to say Auburn fans aren’t trembling with excitement over the state of the program. Not a surprise, of course, but further evidence for why even mild progress for Gus would — ahem — lead to some tough questions for 2017.
Fullbacks. A year after the Myron Burton show, I’m not going to overreact to the C.J. Tolbert show … but it sure seems like between Cox, Pettway, and Tolbert, fullback is one offensive position that will be capably manned.
Marlon Davidson. Dear five-star freshman defensive end, please let some of your immediate-impact aura affect the incoming five-star wide receivers, I think we could use them right away, thanks.
Offensive line. When Chandler Cox is rumbling for 71 yards, it’s safe to assume the offensive line has opened a hole of consequential size. If Alex Kozan is back to being the player he was in 2013 and Robert Leff can hack it at right tackle, the offensive line should be the best it’s been since, well, 2013.