Jarrett Stidham Has What Gus Malzahn Needs

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditmail

Jarrett Stidham rolls onto The Plains offering Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn the elixir to cure the Tigers’ woes. Luring the transferring Baylor quarterback into a Tigers uniform presents a challenge for Malzahn, however.

Stidham, the talented youngster who expertly filled Seth Russell’s Heisman-contending shoes last season, visited Auburn Wednesday, per 247Sports’ Brandon Marcello.

He bolted from Waco shortly after the release of the Pepper Hamilton report, which exposed some of the sexual assault scandal that forced out head coach Art Briles. Despite the looming possibility of serious repercussions for the Baylor program, Jarrett Stidham’s transfer was not granted the same immediate eligibility extended to transfers out of Penn State in 2012.

As such, Stidham will spend the 2016 on the sidelines as a redshirt, barring a move to the JUCO or FCS levels. Not likely. He’s a proven Power Five commodity, last season completing nearly 69 percent of his pass attempts for 1,265 yards with 12 touchdowns and just two picks.

Stidham’s exactly the kind of player Malzahn needs. Certain coaches can win without an elite-level quarterback; a certain rival elsewhere in the state of Alabama is the quintessential example.

But throughout his college coaching career, Malzahn’s success is tied directly to a standout quarterback.

Auburn won a national championship in 2010 with Malzahn coordinating an offense captained by Cam Newton. Newton’s lone season as the Tigers’ starting quarterback stands as one of the best, individual campaigns in college football history.

In his lone season as head coach at Arkansas State, Malzahn had Ryan Aplin. The dual-threat play-maker Aplin rewrote Arkansas State record books, leaving Jonesboro with 67 career passing touchdowns and 32 scores via the run.

Jarrett Stidham’s precisely the kind of talent who can flourish under Malzahn’s direction, and in turn, Malzahn can craft a winning offense around Stidham. More pressing than if the two would make a good match is whether Malzahn can wait for Stidham’s eligibility to kick in.

Malzahn enters his fourth season as Auburn head coach on a seat that may not qualify as hot, but it sure ain’t cool. The Tigers’ slide since winning the SEC title and reaching the BCS Championship Game in Malzahn’s debut campaign mean little now. Just ask predecessor Gene Chizik, who was fired two seasons removed from winning a national championship.

The Tigers’ regression under Malzahn is not quite as profound as Chizik’s final season — Auburn went 8-5 and 7-6 the last two seasons, compared with 8-5 and 3-9 at the end of the Chizik era — but forecasts for Auburn’s 2016 season feel tepid at best.

When Auburn won the SEC in 2013, Malzahn had a dynamic quarterback around whom to build the offense. Nick Marshall didn’t post the gaudiest passing statistics — just 14 touchdowns and less than 2,000 yards — but his rushing ability surpassed that of some high-quality running backs.

Marshall threw somewhat more in 2014 and ran slightly less, and actually improved his touchdown total. The Tigers struggled defensively, but were still posting 35.5 points per game.

But last season’s plummet to 27.5 points per game, No. 74 in the nation, underscored the need for a top-tier quarterback in Malzahn’s system.

Jeremy Johnson created enough of a buzz in limited appearances the season before, and during Auburn’s spring practices, that he appeared in the CFB Huddle preseason Heisman Top 10, a gauge of voter and pundit hype.

His struggles stand out as one of the bigger disappointments of last season, but he was still better than replacement Sean White.

The defense improved under Will Muschamp, who returned to head coaching with the gig at South Carolina, but was hardly good enough to elevate Auburn above mediocrity.

Strides must be made, and made quickly. A commitment from Jarrett Stidham inspires some hope about the future, but 2016 can’t be written off.

Auburn already missed once on a big-time transfer target out of Texas. Former Texas Tech quarterback Davis Webb flirted with the Tigers between commits to Colorado and Cal. That leaves JUCO transfer John Franklin III the likely candidate to step in.

Franklin’s more known for his appearance on the Netflix documentary Last Chance U. than anything he’s done on a Div. I football field. His spring game performance didn’t exactly light the world on fire. After the Johnson hype train, that may not be such a bad thing.

Should Franklin pan out like another Auburn JUCO transfer, Cam Newton, the Jarrett Stidham question isn’t as pressing. However, that contingency plan may be what Malzahn needs to weather another disappointing season.