July 26, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. -- Coach Gus Malzahn starts Auburn's preseason practice in six days, and, in what shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, he's going to do it in offensive overdrive.
He has to because he has to find a starting quarterback from an unusually large pool of four candidates, and, after awhile, there just won't be enough snaps to go around unless he makes some fairly quick evaluations.
"We'll have an accelerated pace as far as our camp reps. We'll narrow it down," he says.
He won't fool around. He says he'll put his quarterbacks in real-world positions early both in practice and in a scrimmage scheduled just days into fall camp.
The candidates should be familiar by now: Returnees Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace, and newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson. Malzahn has not indicated, not even hinted, who stands above the others.
There are plenty of other positions up for grabs, too. Officially, all of them, but specifically linebacker, maybe an offensive line spot, some tweaking in the secondary, a defensive line position could have a surprise and a rotation will be determined at wide and slot receiver where most everybody will play.
But Malzahn says finding a starting quarterback is the No. 1 priority in the first half of fall practice. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to find his play-caller, too, namely, the middle linebacker who will help set the defense. Jake Holland and Kris Frost are the leading candidates.
"There is no tension. It is all 'let's get better as a team,'" Holland said. "Whoever Coach Johnson decides to start, that's who will start. There is going to be a nice rotation this year. That's what I like."
Malzahn isn't necessarily looking for a rotation at quarterback. He's looking for clear-cut No. 1, and he'll tweak his offense to match the skills of that starter. But Auburn fans shouldn't look for any big changes from the offense they saw when he was the Tigers' offensive coordinator from 2009-11. He's going to go fast no matter how much some other coaches complain. In fact, Malzahn says more and more teams are choosing fast-paced offenses.
"You're seeing the game changing. Anytime you see somebody having success, at a certain level, you'll see other people doing it," he said. "I think you'll see it more and more, not only at the college level, but in the pros."
Malzahn says he won't sit still, either.
"You have to stay on the cutting edge. As a coach, you're always trying to tweak certain things to keep an advantage," he said.
It will all begin with either Frazier or Wallace or Marshall or Johnson. One will be Malzahn's eighth consecutive different starting quarterback in eight years as a college coach. He's won with all sorts of skills, from pure passers, to guys who could run and pass, to Cam Newton, who turned in one of the most astounding seasons in college history.
Malzahn told ESPN earlier this week that all four of his latest candidates bring something positive to the game from Frazier's "lot of ability in the skill set" to Wallace's "solid spring" to Johnson's "NFL arm" to Marshall's "great arm."
Frazier and Wallace played last year, but didn't win a conference game. Marshall and Johnson are newcomers. Who's in the lead? It may not matter a week before fall practice. It will soon enough, though, and, from that day on, Malzahn said, "we're building around our quarterback strength."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine