Greg OstendorfESPN Staff Writer
It’s safe to say Auburn fans are excited about their new quarterback.
When Jarrett Stidham was introduced Saturday at the Auburn basketball game, the crowd erupted. Sure, they cheered for the other early enrollees. But when it came to Stidham’s turn, you might have thought that the Tigers had just knocked down a game-winning shot.
That’s because there’s hope again.
When Auburn reached the national championship game in 2013, Gus Malzahn’s first year as head coach, it set this expectation that the Tigers belong there every year. If nothing else, they should at least be in contention in the final month of the season. However, they have fallen short of those expectations the past three seasons, and even this past season — New Year’s Six bowl and all — it still felt like a disappointment with the way it ended.
But the fans are hopeful that Stidham will be the missing piece and that Auburn will strike gold on another junior-college quarterback.
First things first
Before we all go and add Stidham to our list of early Heisman Trophy contenders or mention him in the same breath as Cam Newton, let’s remember that the flashy newcomer — ranked No. 1 in the ESPN JC 50 — hasn’t even been named the starting quarterback. He still has to compete with Sean White, John Franklin III and Woody Barrett this spring and earn his spot.
Don’t think White is going to just hand over the starting job either. He might not have the same set of tools, but when Auburn was on its six-game win streak this past season, it was White running the show.
And what do we know about Stidham? He was the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback when he signed with Baylor out of high school. As a freshman, he completed 69 percent of his passes, throwing 12 touchdowns and just two interceptions. But he only started three games, and of those three games, the only one to write home about was his first career start on the road at Kansas State. In the other two, he struggled at times. Naturally, he played like a freshman.
That’s not to say Stidham won’t be an All-SEC-caliber quarterback next season. But Auburn fans should know better than anybody about hyping up a player after seeing only a small sample size. Remember Jeremy Johnson?
The Chip Lindsey effect
One thing that should help Stidham, and all the quarterbacks, is the recent hire of new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey from Arizona State.
Malzahn was forced to find a new offensive coordinator when Rhett Lashlee accepted the same position at Connecticut two weeks ago, and when he introduced Lindsey to the media after Saturday’s basketball game, he made it very clear what he was looking for in Lashlee’s replacement.
“We’ve been one of the best [rushing teams],” Malzahn said. “We need to be more balanced. We need to throw the ball more effectively. Chip will bring that, and I’m excited about our passing game. He will bring some new ideas, some new wrinkles, new flairs. He has a great offensive mind, and I think it will complement our run game.”
If Stidham does win the job, that should sound like music to his ears.
In the four seasons Malzahn and Lashlee spent at Auburn together as head coach and coordinator, no quarterback ever averaged more than 200 yards passing per game for a whole season. When Lindsey was the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss in 2014 and 2015, his quarterback Nick Mullens threw for 289 yards per game over a two-year span.
As good as Mullens was for the Golden Eagles — and he was really good — Stidham has a chance to be a special player with the right offense and the right coaching.
A strong supporting cast
Hypothetically, let’s assume Stidham does win the starting job. He’s got an offensive-minded head coach. He’s got an offensive coordinator who has had success developing quarterbacks. And maybe most importantly, he has one of the best supporting casts in the SEC.
Between rising sophomores Kyle Davis, Eli Stove and Nate Craig-Myers, somebody has to emerge as a go-to wide receiver for Auburn next season. That bunch is too talented not to take the next step. If all three break out, the Tigers might have their best receiving corps since Sammie Coates and D’haquille Williams were catching passes in 2014.
The offensive line returns three starters, including All-SEC guard Braden Smith. And how can we forget Kamryn Pettway, the 6-foot, 240-pound running back who led the conference in rushing yards per game (136) this past season? If there’s one reason why Stidham might not throw for a crazy number of yards, it will because he’s too busy handing the ball off to Pettway.
We don’t yet know if Stidham is going to be elite. We don’t even know if he’s going to be the starter. But everything is in place for him to be the guy who takes Auburn to heights they haven’t reached since Malzahn first got there.
The fans know it, too. That’s why they’re so excited.