This story was originally published in April and has since been updated.
Quarterback recruiting at Gus Malzahn’s Auburn has never followed the typical pattern. The breakthrough when he was OC came with JUCO transfer Cam Newton, and his initial success as head coach relied on former UGA cornerback Nick Marshall.
Since Marshall departed, the Tigers have struggled to recruit, develop, and deploy QBs that could call to mind the production of those two stars. Last year, they tried another JUCO transfer, pulling John Franklin III from Last Chance U, but he is now moving to WR.
However, Auburn seemed to hit rich again in the transfer market when former Baylor four-star Jarrett Stidham signed. He went on to shine in Auburn’s spring game, completing 16 of 20 passes for 267 yards. In August, Malzahn announced him as the starter.
Stidham’s quick release and strong arm made him plenty effective in his three starts as a freshman before a broken ankle. In total, Stidham threw 109 passes for 1,265 yards (11.6 per throw) with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions, mostly on the road at Kansas State and Oklahoma State and against a Playoff-bound Oklahoma.
But while Stidham was listed as a “dual-threat” QB and is far from immobile, the 6’3, 210-pounder is a different player than the transfer solutions Malzahn has used in the past. Newton was good at everything, and Marshall was an efficient enough passer to keep defenses from focusing on his run game. Texas native Stidham is trained in smashmouth spread offenses that combine the power run with vertical passing, and he could allow Auburn to finally evolve into the next phase.
This is modern triple (or quadruple) option football.
Stidham was one of two major additions, the other being OC/QB coach Chip Lindsey. Malzahn hired Lindsey from Arizona State, where he served as OC for a single season, but he came up through Alabama high schools and is a Malzahn disciple.
At Arizona State, Lindsey was coaching a run/pass-option spread offense, built around the spread-I formation. It aimed to combine power runs with vertical passing. Here’s an example:
To the two-receiver side (the QB’s right side and bottom of the GIF), the Sun Devils run a bubble/slant combo, which has the potential to punish either a zone or man coverage combo. On the other side, they run a hitch route that can convert to a fade (as it does here). In the box, they use a standard power run, which gets engulfed by the Utah blitz.
The bubble route gets swallowed up by the man coverage, as expected, but the slant to No. 12 is open. However, the press coverage tells the hitch route WR to instead run a fade and for ASU QB Manny Wilkins to take that shot. He successfully throws the back-shoulder fade over the tight coverage.
Smashmouth spread offense means threatening the defense with traditional runs, but taking advantage when they give you iso opportunities for your receivers. As this example shows, Lindsey is as aggressive as anyone in taking advantage when opportunities present themselves.
The essential ingredients for this system are five linemen and an H-back who can block an honest, six-man front; receivers who can make the defense pay when it turns to man coverage; and a deciphering QB who can quickly put the ball in the right spot.
Auburn did not make this a huge component last year with the frequently injured Sean White (who was actually effective when healthy), preferring to use double-TE sets and WR sweeps to complement their run, rather than the run/pass options Malzahn helped make famous years earlier. RPOs take a lot of practice time. When the Tigers did run them, they were not masters of the art:
That’s just a quick hitch route attached to a weak-side run. It’s there to take advantage of soft coverage. The timing and accuracy were not good enough to burn Oklahoma.
Their 2016 run game didn’t need the help of RPOs, with Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway getting a combined 2,119 yards on 391 carries. However, their passing game never came alive, and they never fully settled on White as the leader of the offense.
Stidham already has some proven experience operating an RPO smashmouth spread.
Auburn’s major contributions to modern tactics included popularizing the use of H-backs like Jay Prosch and now Chandler Cox, which allowed two-back run concepts from spread formations. That kind of spread-I formation makes for nasty play-action, but perhaps even deadlier RPO possibilities.
Baylor used blocking TEs heavily but also explored vertical pass options attached to runs, rapid tempo, and extreme WR spacing.
You can see the value of the H-back (the player between the QB and the line) on this play. He leads the faked run, causing the weak-side linebacker over the slot WR to make an aggressive run fill. That creates an easy read for Stidham. He punishes the LBs fill with a skinny post to Corey Coleman on an out-leveraged safety.
The 2017 Auburn Tigers offense
With both leading runners, Cox, and three starting OL returning, the Tigers figure to field another bruising rushing attack.
With Lindsey bringing some new tactics and Stidham bringing a golden arm and some experience executing said tactics (while getting first-team reps due to an injury to White), it seems the value-add Auburn gets from its QB in 2017 will come from the passing game.
But Auburn still has to find someone for Stidham to throw to.
In the smashmouth spread, the receiving corps ideally provides two types of threats. The first is a burner in the slot who can turn a bubble route or a quick pass into a big gain, if you leave him enough space. In the RPO example above at ASU, you want the two-WR combo on the right to draw the attention of the nickel (N below), field corner (right C), and field safety ($).
With Franklin moving to WR and a few other speedy wideouts returning, Auburn has plenty of options for that speed side.
The bigger issue is finding a guy who can run adjustable routes and consistently beat man coverage on the other side. The Tigers want to find him soon, so Stidham can nail down chemistry before fall camp ends.
The Tigers’ two years with Stidham could include another big run that keeps Malzahn in the good graces of Auburn fans.
They also have a chance to make a revolutionary statement that, in today’s world, you can consistently field top offenses while waiting until after high school to pick out your QBs.