AUBURN, Ala. -- It didn’t take long Saturday to figure out that Auburn has something special in quarterback Jarrett Stidham.
It was his second play of the spring game. He took his normal three-step drop and launched a deep ball down the right sideline. All too often in recent seasons we’ve seen Auburn quarterbacks overthrow their target. Or the wide receiver has to hold up and wait for the ball to get there. Not this time. The ball traveled nearly 40 yards in the air, and the receiver, Nate Craig-Myers, caught it in stride and ran an additional 10 yards before he was pushed out of bounds.
Obviously, you take all spring-game performances with a grain of salt. In Stidham’s case, he was facing Auburn's No. 2 defense. Did anybody really think he was going to struggle? But between that 50-yard pass to Craig-Myers and another 47-yard pass he threw to Darius Slayton later in the first half, it was clear that Stidham is the real deal at quarterback.
“When he first got here, obviously everybody is skeptical,” Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson. “Is he really that good? Is he this or that? I think he is. He really has potential. He’s a smart dude. He knows the offense. He wants to run it well. He likes to lead. Obviously, he’s got a very good arm.”
Stidham played only the first half Saturday, but he finished with 267 yards passing and was 16-of-20 on the day. Five of those 16 completions went for 25 yards or more, and he also showed good pocket presence, escaping trouble and picking up yards with his legs on multiple occasions.
If there was a bar set by the coaches or the fans going into the game, Stidham likely surpassed it. There’s just one problem: The hype is only beginning.
On Sunday afternoon, 24 hours after the spring game, the Las Vegas SuperBook released its opening odds for the 2017 Heisman Trophy, and Stidham was on there at 50-to-1 to win college football’s most prestigious individual award. The guy hasn’t even won the starting job at Auburn yet.
This might sound familiar to Auburn fans who remember two years ago, when it was Jeremy Johnson getting the offseason buzz. The junior quarterback threw for 252 yards and two touchdowns in the first half of the spring game, and despite limited game experience, he quickly became a popular dark horse candidate to win the Heisman. As a result, the Tigers were considered a top-10 team preseason and a popular pick to win the SEC.
We all know how that ended, and it wasn't pretty.
There’s a different feel with Stidham, though. Maybe it’s the fact that after Saturday’s game, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn all but embraced the inevitable hype that will surround his quarterback in the coming months.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Malzahn said. “When your players play good, I think it’s a good thing. It ain’t a bad thing.”
Or maybe it’s the way Stidham goes about his business.
As many throws as he made Saturday, Stidham still did push-ups at halftime because of the ones he missed. He also admitted afterward that there was still a lot for him to work on and that he plans to go back through all the film -- from the first day of spring to the last -- and evaluate his play.
The former Baylor quarterback isn’t being handed the starting job, either. He knows he has to go out and earn it over the next five months, and he’s looking forward to competing against a healthy Sean White, last season's starter, when Auburn returns for fall camp.
In the meantime?
“I think it's just hard work every day,” Stidham said. “Doing extra, going up and watching extra film, doing extra in the weight room. Just being a good leader. There are so many intangibles that go into being the guy."
Stidham might not be the starting quarterback yet. But if you’re talking about the best players in the SEC, he already belongs in that conversation.
That much was evident from watching Auburn's spring game.