By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Twenty-four years after coaching his final game, Pat Dye still closely follows Auburn football. A frequent visitor at practice, Dye is optimistic about the upcoming season.
"I'm excited about this year's team," said Dye, who coached the Tigers from 1981-`92. "And I really think the play of our quarterbacks is going to determine how far this football team goes. I think we'll be good, regardless, but it could end up being an outstanding football team if we get the production at quarterback. Doesn't make any difference who it is."
Coach Gus Malzahn says Auburn's quarterback competition continues, with the season opener against Clemson less than two weeks away. Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and John Franklin III are contending for the starting job.
Dye, who led Auburn to four SEC championships in the `80s, says Malzahn's track record of developing players at football's most important position speaks for itself.
"Coach Malzahn has had as much success in training and building quarterbacks as anybody in modern times," Dye says. "And they've lined up and beaten the best defenses that the nation could put out there."
Dye backed up his statement by reviewing Malzahn's six previous seasons at Auburn, three as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2009-'11, and three as head coach from 2013-'15, with Rhett Lashlee serving as coordinator and QB coach.
"I'm a strong believer in history," Dye says. "By his standards, we had a difficult year last year, offensively. But his background, resume, is that he's been a great quarterback coach.
"His first quarterback when he got to Auburn, Chris Todd, was an outstanding thrower, but a non-runner, and we had a good offense the first year Coach Malzahn was here.
"And then, of course, he takes Cam Newton, and Cam Newton at Auburn, and he may end up the same thing in pro football -- time will tell -- but I think Cam Newton is the best football player I ever saw in my life. He could do more things to win a football game. And at the quarterback position, you handle it on every down. And the most phenomenal thing is that on 3rd-and-short, we were 100 percent the year that Cam played. And he ended up with the ball, I'm going to say, 95 percent of the time.
"I thought (Tim) Tebow was the best player I ever saw until I saw Cam. Cam was a better a thrower. He was a better runner. He was two inches taller and 15 or 20 pounds heavier, and just as competitive as Tebow was.
"People say, `I thought Bo Jackson would be.' I said, `Well, Bo didn't handle the ball on every snap. And Cam did.'
"Then he takes Nick Marshall. Nick didn't even go through a spring practice. And Nick takes us to the national championship game. And both of them had the personality, and Coach Malzahn had a lot to do with it, building the confidence in them for them to be able to make plays to win football games.
"They both were highly competitive, and both great athletes. They made plays when the game was on the line, and that's what the great quarterbacks do. And they don't get you beat with turnovers and mistakes. And they take care of the football."
Dye says quarterback play is the biggest factor in a team's success.
"The first thing the quarterback has to do, and Coach Malzahn knows this, and coaches it, and we've been very good at it, and that's the reason last year was so unusual, is our quarterbacks haven't turned the ball over. They haven't thrown interceptions and they haven't fumbled the ball," he says.
"And taking care of the football, and not putting your defense in poor field position is the most important thing that a quarterback can give a football team. If he can do that, then the defense has got a chance to keep you in the game, and even win the game. Defensive team and the specialty teams. The quarterback, he's got to be able to make plays on critical downs. And be able to close the game at the end if you're behind, or if you need to run the clock out, to finish the game."
Dye, a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, concluded his thoughts by recalling the 1959 Auburn-Georgia game, in which Dye participated as a Bulldogs' offensive lineman.
With the SEC Championship on the line, a late Auburn quarterback fumble allowed Georgia's Fran Tarkenton to throw a game-winning touchdown pass in the final minute.
"One of the quarterbacks had a part in losing the game. The quarterback on the other team had a part in winning the game," Dye says. "That's just the nature of the game."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer