July 15, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn needs to find a new starting quarterback, and if you think that sounds familiar, well, you would be right.
He's doing it for the eighth straight season.
Auburn's new head coach has had a different starting quarterback every year he's been in the college game, and he'll have another one when the Tigers open the season against Washington State on Aug. 31. He'll choose in August between returnees Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace, and newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson.
Not to worry.
"The great thing about it is we've done this before," Malzahn said. "We've gone through the stress of fall camp figuring out who the quarterback is. You want to name that guy as soon as you can to start getting that timing and cohesiveness, but, at the same time, it may take a little bit to find the right guy."
One or more of Auburn's quarterbacks will have big shoes to fill, considering three quarterbacks Malzahn has coached are in the Top 15, all time, for combined touchdowns in a college season.
This season's starter or starters can marvel at what Malzahn's starting quarterbacks did in the two years he was at Tulsa: A combined 9,100 passing yards and 93 passing touchdowns.
This year's Auburn quarterbacks can remember these two words: Cam Newton.
Malzahn was entering his fourth year as a college offensive coordinator when he showed up at Auburn for the 2009 season. He helped Chris Todd and his surgically-repaired shoulder that season to 22 passing touchdowns, a school record. The next year he picked a junior college transfer named Cam Newton, a fellow who had thrown 12 passes in two years at Florida, and saw him win the Heisman Trophy while turning in one of the finest seasons in college football history. Last year, as Arkansas State's head coach, he watched Ryan Aplin throw for 3,342 yards.
Malzahn's reputation precedes him, as it did in 2009 when he was hired as Auburn's offensive coordinator. Chris Todd had checked him out then.
"I had looked at his track record in college and he had done a great job at Arkansas. He led the nation in a lot of categories at Tulsa," Todd said. "There wasn't any reason not to be optimistic going in."
Thirteen games later, Todd set an Auburn record for touchdowns passes in a single season, beating the likes of Pat Sullivan and Jason Campbell. A year later, Malzahn turned Newton loose on college football.
"What he did in one year will probably never be done again," Malzahn says.
Todd says Malzahn's offense can work without a No. 1 NFL draft pick.
"He spreads the ball around, but he runs the power-I out of the shotgun. He allowed us to utilize some of the players we already had, and that was a good fit," Todd said. "He put us in good spots and we had opportunities."
Here's Malzahn's take on his seven starting quarterbacks over the last seven years:
QB: Robert Johnson, Mitch Mustain, Casey Dick
They'll count as one here. Johnson had started seven games the year before and got the first call in 2006, but was replaced after the opener by Mitch Mustain, who was the national player of the year for Malzahn the season before at Springdale High School.
"Robert was a guy with high character and a very good athlete," Malzahn said.
Mustain started eight games and won them all, including a 27-10 victory over No. 2 Auburn. But then-head coach Houston Nutt replaced Mustain with Casey Dick. Mustain completed 69-of-132 passes for 894 yards and 10 TDs. In all, the quarterbacks threw 19 touchdown passes on a team that featured two big-time tailbacks in 1,000-yard rushers Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
QB: Paul Smith
Smith had been Tulsa's starter, but put up huge numbers under Malzahn. He threw for more yards than any Malzahn quarterback: 5,065 yards and 47 touchdowns. Smith's season fills up the NCAA record book.
His 60 total touchdowns that season are second all time, his 47 TD passes are seventh best, his 5,184 total yards are eighth best and those 5,065 passing yards are the 10th best. Smith also broke an NCAA record by passing for more than 300 yards in 14 straight games.
"He was a phenomenal play-maker," Malzahn said. "We had a lot of inexperience up front and a lot of young receivers, and he really did a great job."
QB: David Johnson
Johnson was a fifth-year senior who had never started a game. It didn't matter. He threw for 4,059 yards and 46 touchdowns.
"We brought in the No. 1 junior college quarterback in the country that year, and Dave beat him out," Malzahn said. "He was a great competitor. He didn't have a strong spring, but he had a strong fall camp and established himself at that position."
QB: Chris Todd
Todd had played in seven games and threw five TDs the year before, but a sore shoulder had slowed him.
"He's a pretty unique story," Malzahn said. "He didn't go through spring with us because he had shoulder surgery. His personality is a little bit different than what I'm used to, but he came out in fall camp and it didn't take long at all to establish himself as the starting quarterback. I'm very proud of him. He's a great competitor.
"He wasn't a runner, but he was tough and had a lot of courage."
Todd hit 198-of-328 passes for 2,612 yards.
QB: Cam Newton
Nobody really knew how good Newton could be, not even Malzahn.
"It wasn't probably until Game 4, against South Carolina, that I opened my eyes that he could really be special," Malzahn said.
Before then, Malzahn was concerned about turnovers. Newton put those fears to rest on the way to 51 touchdowns — 30 via the pass, 20 via the run and one via the catch. Oh, yeah, there was the 14-0 record and the BCS national championship.
"He allowed me to coach him hard, too," Malzahn said. "I was very demanding on him. He responded. He's mentally tough and physically tough and he's a fierce competitor. He has the contagious personality and his teammates rallied around him."
Newton was also a human highlight reel. He won the Heisman Trophy, of course, and led the nation in points-responsible-for and passing efficiency, and became the first SEC player to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.
QB: Barrett Trotter
Trotter had the difficult job of replacing Newton. He started the first seven games, and didn't play in the next five. But he came out of nowhere — as an injury replacement — to lead Auburn over Virginia 43-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
"Barrett is a great competitor, too," Malzahn said. "He had lost out to Cam the year before and he wasn't happy about it. He has that competiveness. It's unfortunate we weren't real strong around him his year, but he still found ways to help us win. I'm real proud the way he performed in that last game."
Trotter finished hitting 92-of-167 passes for 1,184 yards and 11 touchdowns.
2012 Arkansas State
QB: Ryan Aplin
Aplin held 16 school records at Arkansas State before Malzahn arrived, and put up more big numbers the only season they worked together.
Aplin was 276-of-406 passing for 3,342 yards and 24 touchdowns, and ran for another 596 last season. His 406 pass attempts were second only to Smith's 544 as a Malzahn quarterback. Aplin, Smith, Johnson and Todd all attempted more passes than Newton.
Malzahn said Aplin is "a winner. He has a great arm and is a great play-maker. He and Paul Smith are a lot alike. They were just unbelievable playmakers."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine