AUBURN, Ala. — John Franklin III might have been the star of the summer Netflix hit Last Chance U, but Sean White will be the one getting another opportunity on the Plains this fall.
On Thursday evening, nine days before Auburn’s season opener against No. 2 Clemson, head coach Gus Malzahn announced White would be the Tigers’ starting quarterback. The sophomore beat out JUCO transfer Franklin and senior Jeremy Johnson for the job.
“We’ve got three guys that can run our offense, but Sean White’s the first one that will be out there,” Malzahn said. “We’re excited for Sean. He’s earned it. He’s a guy that has experience in our offense last year. He’s a tough guy. … The team’s going to rally around him, so I’m excited for him.”
White came into fall camp as the rumored leader, and he was the safest option of the three for Malzahn. The Florida native was up and down in his six starts last season for the Tigers, as a knee injury against Arkansas heavily affected his play in the second half of the campaign.
Malzahn’s decision to go with White will definitely be a hot topic among Auburn fans between now and next Saturday’s prime-time showdown with the defending national runner-up. Here are the potential pros and cons of White’s move to the top of the depth chart for 2016.
Best passer on the roster
Of the three competitors in this year’s battle, White was the most polished passer Auburn could have chosen.
For all his gifts as a runner, Franklin’s inconsistencies through the air have been well-documented and were the biggest issue standing between him and the starting job. Johnson tossed seven interceptions last season, with six coming in Auburn’s first three games.
When healthy, White was highly accurate through the air. Before his injury late in a marathon loss at Arkansas, his numbers—outside of passing touchdowns—were solid:
“The fact that he competed at a high level last year and then he battled through some injuries, he had a very good spring,” Malzahn said. “He’s a smart guy that understands the offense. He battled. He battled hard in fall camp.”
Passing has been White’s biggest calling card since Auburn started recruiting him to play quarterback. He was the No. 8 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2014 and the MVP of the famed Elite 11 quarterback camp in 2013.
White’s emergence as Auburn’s top option at quarterback could be coming at the best time for the offense. With the dismissal of Jovon Robinson, the Tigers are lacking depth and experience at running back.
However, Auburn reloaded its wide receiver corps this offseason with the signing of three 4-star wideouts—Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis and Eli Stove. Those freshmen are expected to play key roles in the rotation this fall with returning weapons such as Marcus Davis, Jason Smith and Tony Stevens.
“[The receivers are] real confident in what we’ve got going on,” Marcus Davis said. “Now that we’ve got that one guy, we can just continue to build that chemistry with him and I think that was the biggest thing, we got a lot of reps with Sean White and I think that everybody is just ready to play.”
With Franklin’s questionable passing game and Johnson’s 2015 struggles, a healthy White is the most dependable option to get the ball to those receivers this fall. It could be an extra boost in Auburn’s upset bid against Clemson, as the visiting Tigers only return one starter in their secondary.
Experience as a starter
Another advantage White had over Franklin in this battle is his experience as a starter. While Franklin has never taken a snap at the FBS level, White started almost half a season as a redshirt freshman. He already knows the pressure of big games at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
That’s a big positive in his favor as Auburn plays a pair of Top Five teams and an additional SEC West foe in Texas A&M during the first month of the season.
“I think probably just more than anything is the progressions of understanding the offense,” Malzahn said. “Any time you have experience in something, you can go to your checkdowns or go to the other side of the field and just probably the overall experience factor of knowing, being in the situations, knowing what to expect, knowing what to do or what not to do.”
White showed as a freshman last season that he wouldn’t get rattled in tough situations, whether it was his first career start against Mississippi State or a nationally televised Thursday night road game against Kentucky.
That attitude extended into 2016 for White, and it made a big impact on some of his teammates.
“Sean’s got a little mean streak to him,” running back Kerryon Johnson said. “He’s not going to back down from anybody. He’s a spicy player. He loves competition. I think that’s the thing that people really get out of playing with him. They really get that attitude that you can really feed off of as a team.”
White’s past experience will be huge in preparing to attack the 2016 season as Auburn’s starting quarterback. He knows the challenges ahead of him and what the coaching staff expects of him.
“That’s been a huge difference as far as timing with the receivers and just being able to go out there and run the plays, not think, and being able to lead everybody,” White said. “[It was] hard for me to get on [veteran receivers] like, ‘Hey man. Do this. Do this.’ Now I feel comfortable out there where I feel like I can lead the offense, lead the team.”
Lack of an established running threat
Malzahn made it clear earlier in fall camp that Auburn needed more running production out of its quarterbacks in 2016.
“Our quarterback has to be more of a runner this year, we’ve talked about that, I don’t care who it is,” Malzahn said August 15, per Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. “It’s good that we’ve got that depth right now.”
Does White fit that description? It’s not looking likely, based on his numbers a season ago. White was credited with 30 carries last season for 35 rushing yards. According to Auburn’s website, 10 of those carries were sacks, and his longest run of the season was a 31-yarder against Mississippi State.
Needless to say, White’s rushing production is a far cry from the quarterbacks who have run Malzahn’s offense the best at Auburn—Cam Newton and Nick Marshall. Being that type of read-option quarterback hasn’t been White’s game so far in his football career.
However, he did play several games on an injured knee. At complete health, can White run enough to make Malzahn’s offense perform at a higher level than 2015? Malzahn sounds confident.
“I mean he can run, he had a long run against Mississippi State,” Malzahn said. “He’s got the ability to tuck it and run. He’s a 4.6 [seconds in the 40-yard dash] guy. But after he hurt his knee and hurt his foot, he wasn’t the same guy. That limited him on his mobility, but he’s a mobile guy.”
JUCO transfers don’t come onto campus to sit on the bench, and there’s still a good chance Franklin might play quarterback for the Tigers in certain packages this season. Franklin could use his speed to provide that rushing threat from the signal-caller spot that White might not be able to provide in full.
But there’s an inherent danger in that type of system—it could become far too predictable. Even if Franklin plays as a Wildcat-type of quarterback this fall, White will still need to prove he can run. And Franklin will have to be a threat as a passer.
Predictability doomed the Tigers last season in Malzahn’s worst offensive season as a collegiate coach. White doesn’t have to be Nick Marshall, as he referenced Thursday evening in Auburn’s press conference.
The lack of a true dual-threat starter could create more headaches for the under-pressure offense in 2016.
White’s knee injury cost him his mobility last season, and it will be in the back of Auburn fans’ minds everywhere whenever he steps onto the field.
The new starting quarterback acknowledged the knee injury played a big impact on how his season finished last fall. His top priority in 2016—getting through all of it as a healthy starter.
“It bothered me. That’s no excuse. I should’ve played better at the end of the season,” White said. “If you’re going to play, you have to go in there and play well. That’s the object. If you’re going to play, you’ve got to play well. My focus this year is to stay healthy and build momentum on what I did in the first half of the season season last year, and I still don’t believe I played as well as I could, not even close.
“So I feel like I’m ready to go. I’m 100 percent healthy. It’s a huge credit to these guys down in the medical training staff…for me to get back 100 percent and not even have to worry about any injuries from last season.”
Malzahn is confident in the quality depth Auburn has at quarterback following this lengthy position battle. That might come into good use if injuries come back to haunt White in 2016.
“Like I’ve said all along, it was a very good race,” Malzahn said. “All three guys competed at a very high level. I just felt like it was time to name a starter, and Sean won the job.”
There’s some risk in putting your chips behind a quarterback who struggled with a serious knee injury last season, as there’s a higher probability he could go down again.
If he’s ruled out, Auburn will then have to turn to a backup who either has no FBS experience or one who was always looked at as the longest shot in the three-way battle.
White’s injury history isn’t a major con right now, but it’s something that could play into how the 2016 season goes for the Tigers.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football