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Actually, Gus Malzahn’s quarterback development is good

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Ask Auburn fans on the Internet what Gus Malzahn needed in a new offensive coordinator, and other than “not be Noel Mazzone,” one criterion emerged above all: He’s got to be able to develop quarterbacks. The No. 1 thing is developing quarterbacks. Just as long as he can develop quarterbacks. Even Malzahn himself seemed to agree:

“I’m excited to welcome Chip Lindsey to the Auburn family,” Malzahn said. “I have the utmost confidence in his ability to lead our offense and his strength in developing quarterbacks makes him the perfect fit.”

This wasn’t a surprise, of course, since over the past two seasons “Gus can’t develop QBs” has become an outright article of faith among many Auburn fans. It’s an article of misplaced, misinformed faith, but an article all the same, and it’s not hard to understand why. If we roughly categorized the performance of the six quarterbacks who have won the opening-week starter’s job under Malzahn at Auburn, we’d do so like so:

Smashing successes

Cam Newton, Nick Marshall

Successes

Chris Todd

Acceptableish

Sean White

Not great

Barrett Trotter

Disastrous

Jeremy Johnson

What do the first three names on that list have in common? They all arrived at Auburn as JUCO transfers. What do the last three have in common? They all arrived at Auburn out of high school and had multiple years of apprenticeship under Malzahn before ascending to the starter’s position. Quarterbacks that arrive with prior seasoning work out; those that Malzahn has to develop from scratch himself don’t. Simple!

Except that it’s not. In fact, it’s simpler to argue that Malzahn is a good-to-great developer of quarterbacks, given that his starters other than Johnson have improved by quantum leaps-and-bounds at best, and played steadily in line with their recruiting rankings at worst. Taking it on a case-by-case basis:

Tulsa

Malzahn’s Golden Hurricane days are far enough behind us (and came against soft enough opposition) that we can’t put too much stock in them in January 2017, but still: in Gus’s first season calling plays for Todd Graham, Paul Smith improved his QB rating by 18 points, going from 29th to 4th nationally in that statistic. The following year, Smith’s apprentice David Johnson did even better, finishing 2nd with a 178.69 mark that would lead the nation some years.

Chris Todd

Todd, 2008: 5.8 yards-per-attempt, 5-to-6 TD-to-INT ratio, 106.64 QB rating. Todd, 2009: 8.0 YPA, 22-to-6 TDs to INTs, 145.73 rating (3rd in SEC), assorted Auburn records, etc.

Cam Newton

Yes, Cam was Cam. Please consider, though, that

1. before arriving at Auburn he was unpolished enough as a passer that Urban Meyer placidly let him walk, then made no effort to re-sign him as Auburn battled Mississippi State (!) for his signature

2. Cam made tremendous strides as a passer during the 2010 run, saving his three highest-rated regular season performances against Power 5 opponents for Georgia, Alabama, and the SEC Championship.

I mean, honestly: regardless of Cam’s physical gifts, if you can’t give the offensive coordinator-slash-quarterbacks coach credit when his JUCO transfer QB posts one of the defining individual seasons in college football history, you’re the grade-A-est of grade-A haters.

Barrett Trotter

The 2011 season hasn’t gotten any less weird in retrospect, with Trotter opening the season with two outstanding performances against Utah State (did you remember he went 17-of-23 for 11.3 YPA and three TDs without a pick?) and Mississippi State before the gradual decline that saw Clint Moseley take over starting duties late in the year. Moseley was likewise up-and-down before getting knocked out of the bowl game … and watching Trotter make a triumphant early-seasonesque return to beat Virginia. As a team, Auburn finished 8th overall in SEC QB rating.

Did Trotter and Moseley make Malzahn look like a quarterback coaching wizard? No. Do I believe Gene Chizik attempting to play defense-first clock-burnball had something to do with it? I do. Do I believe even moreso that Trotter (who took Tommy Tuberville’s offer over those from “UAB, Duke, Army and Samford“) and Moseley (who took an offer to join Chizik’s whirlwind first class over those from “Marshall, Arkansas State, South Alabama and UAB“) performed about as well against the likes of Clemson, LSU, Florida, Georgia and Alabama as they would have under any coach you’d care to name? I do.

Nick Marshall

Marshall’s quarterback rating went from 143.17 in Year 1 to 151.09 in Year 2, but those numbers drastically undersell his transformation from the guy who went 10-of-19 for 99 yards without a score against Washington State to the one that went 27-of-43 for 456 yards and 3 touchdowns against Alabama. It’s not easy to get more efficient even as you’re attempting 54 additional passes (as Marshall did from 2013 to 2014) and your powerhouse ground game takes a step back, but he did. Of his 13 career appearances in which Marshall attempted 20 or more passes for Auburn, his five highest single-game ratings all came in 2014. Most of those performances came against powerful opposition, too — Ole Miss, Alabama, Wisconsin, etc. — which is how Auburn went from No. 16 in passing S&P+ in 2013 to No. 1 in 2014.

That’s right: Gus Malzahn stuck a once-and-future defensive back behind center and built arguably the best passing attack in the country around him. But he can’t develop quarterbacks, y’all.

Jeremy Johnson

Well, OK, he couldn’t develop Johnson, who somehow went from being the FBS’s active leader in career QB rating, career completion percentage and career yards-per-attempt as a backup to benched after three games as the starter. Whether that’s on Johnson or Malzahn (and his staff) is the crux of the “can he or can he not develop QBs” question, but suffice it to say that the rest of Malzahn’s track record argues forcibly that it’s on Johnson — particularly the part of the track record concerning …

Sean White

If Jeremy Johnson didn’t improve because Gus is incapable of developing quarterbacks, why did a second Auburn quarterback who was receiving the exact same coaching at the exact same time develop right on schedule? White took his lumps in his first career start against Mississippi State, then starting two weeks later threw 59 passes on the road at Kentucky and Arkansas without a pick, averaging 8.6 yards an attempt. Unfortunately he got hurt in Fayetteville, started 2017 in Gus’s carousel of stupidity, and didn’t get fully right until his start against LSU — whereupon White posted the highest QB rating allowed by those Tigers all season and in his next five games vs. Power 5 competition would reel off the five highest-rated performances against that competition of his young career. He’d become, in fact, the top-rated passer in the whole of the SEC. Then he got hurt.

But unless you’re holding his frailty against Malzahn for some reason, by that point White had already confirmed that, yes, quarterbacks still develop and develop nicely on Gus’s watch. Not that his detractors have acknowledged this, mind you — I’ve heard from several Auburn fans that any improvements from his quarterbacks were due solely to Malzahn’s “system,” that their true development happened in JUCO, that anyone could produce the same results with the same batch of talent.

Sorry, but: you make these arguments, you’re telling me that you’re simply not going to evaluate Malzahn fairly. From this viewpoint, if a Gus quarterback struggles, Gus gets the blame; if a Gus quarterback improves, Gus gets no credit; and there is no possible outcome in which Gus somehow proves that his (or his staff’s) coaching that’s responsible for the improvement. Short of Merlin stopping by practice one day and casting a spell on White so he glows blue when he makes a play he’s been coached to and green when it’s a play you or I could make in the “system,” there’s no fair way to separate what part of his improvement is hands-on development and what’s not. And if Gus’s “system” is quarterback-friendly to the point that Auburn’s signal-callers hypothetically get better even without intensive mechanical overhauls … this is a bad thing?

The bottom line is that Gus should get the blame if a talented quarterback flatlines on his watch, but the only rational thing to do when his quarterbacks do develop is give him the credit as well. Unless you’re of the opinion that his quarterbacks haven’t developed enough, which … really? Chris Todd, whose arm was held together by Spiderwire and prayer by the time Gus got hold of him, should have broken more school records? Cam should have done more than ascend to Asgard? Marshall should have thrown for 556 yards in Bryant-Denny? White should have become the nation’s most efficient passer, not just the league’s? Yes, perhaps we could have expected more out of Trotter and Moseley, particularly the former, but if your standard for success for Malzahn is to wave a wand and turn every quarterback he encounters into a gamebreaker — even the low-end three-stars every other major program in the region has concluded aren’t physically capable at the SEC level — your standards are weird.

Which is not to say that everything’s been peachy-keen the last two seasons, because duh. Gus’s quarterback development has been solid-at-worst. His quarterback management the past two years has been a disaster, one only amplified by Johnson’s collapse. Understandable as it seemed at the time, naming Johnson the 2015 starter was a mistake. Not having White more prepared to take over was a mistake. As I wrote last time out, signing John Franklin III as your 2016 insurance policy was a great big giant whopper of a mistake. And “mistake” doesn’t even begin to describe torpedoing the start to this past season with Gus’s Clemson wankery. However much you attribute the Johnson disintegration to rank misfortune or straight-up coaching failure, it’s Malzahn’s responsibility to ensure the quarterback position is seaworthy enough not to drag the entire team under. And the last two seasons it’s been the anchoriest of anchors. That’s on Gus.

But the reason this topic is worth discussing it’s because it’s emphatically not on Gus in a manner that suggests Jarrett Stidham can’t change it singlehandedly. The naysayers would have you believe Gus’s alleged development failures mean Stidham is destined to failure, too. But the track record here — particularly with athletically blessed transfers — suggests precisely the opposite. And even if you believe Todd’s, Cam’s, and even Marshall’s experiences are too far in the rearview mirror to have any bearing on how Stidham fares, White’s certainly isn’t — and in every facet other than durability, White developed as precisely on schedule as we could have hoped. Combine that progression with Stidham’s obvious ionosphere-high potential and White as a terrific second-string security blanket, and we’re talking about, well, talking about Auburn’s quarterback position in very different tones in January 2018.

There is, of course, one sudden and obvious caveat: not only is Chip Lindsey not Rhett Lashlee, but Gus is promising to let Lindsey do the quarterback developing himself in a way Lashlee never did. Lashlee may have gained an increasingly large voice in running the offense over the past few years, but every one of the quarterbacks mentioned above still performed in Gus’s offense. That may not be true of Stidham and Co. this fall. It may no longer be true that the past excellent performance of Malzahn quarterbacks is a predictor of future results. And even if I believe Gus’s skill in coaxing improvement from his signal-callers is intact, I have questions about whether the old go-for-broke spirit of his early days under Chizik (or on his own at the Auburn helm) still is as well.

But this is the offseason. It’s a time for optimism. Whatever the impact of Lindsey’s arrival on Malzahn’s quarterback-coaching resumé, we can be clear that resumé should be a source of higher expectations for Stidham and the rest of Auburn’s quarterbacks going forward, not lower. The benefit of the doubt has still been earned — and until proven otherwise, I’ll believe Gus Malzahn’s quarterbacks will go right on earning it.

Postscript: It wasn’t until after starting this post, that I realized College and Mag user rahien.din had covered much of the same ground in a pair of fanposts, albeit in chart and graph form. I recommend having a look.    

About Jerry Hinnen

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