Rotating quarterbacks? Auburn's 'plan' creates more confusion

Sean White was 10-for-21 for 140 yards passing in Saturday's loss to Clemson. Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

AUBURN, Ala. – On a night when Auburn came within a Hail Mary of shocking the No. 2 team in the nation, fans should’ve walked away happy and excited about the prospects of the upcoming season. Instead, they just walked away confused.

What was Auburn doing at quarterback?

In the postgame press conference, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn tried to focus on how his team almost beat Clemson and how his defense did a tremendous job slowing down Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson. But 11 of the first 12 questions he was asked had to do with the quarterback rotation. At one point, he even got a little heated.

“There wasn’t any hesitation [with the quarterbacks],” Malzahn said. “That was our plan. That’s about the 10th time y’all asked me that. Anybody else want to ask me again?”

Most of us would like to ask about it again because it’s two days later and still nobody knows exactly what Malzahn was trying to do in that first game.

As expected, Sean White started the game at quarterback. But on the second play from scrimmage, a 2nd-and-14, Auburn brought in both John Franklin III and Jeremy Johnson and lined them up wide left. All three quarterbacks in at the same time? The play, a simple handoff to Stanton Truitt, lost two yards.

OK, that was a gimmick. We won’t see them again, right? Wrong.

On the second drive, Franklin came in, took a snap and threw a pass on second down. The third drive, it was Johnson who took over under center. Later in the half, White re-entered the game. All three played in the first half, and Auburn had nothing to show for it. The offense accounted for 38 yards, averaging 1.7 yards per play, three first downs and three points.

“We went into this thing knowing we were going to play all three,” Malzahn said. “They all three had packages. That was our plan. And that’s what we went with. At times, it worked well. At times, we struggled.”

It got even stranger in the second half. Malzahn was calling quarterbacks on and off the field in the middle of drives. He had Chandler Cox and Kerryon Johnson out there taking snaps in the Wildcat formation. The offense finally began moving the ball, but there still seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what Auburn wanted to do.

“Certain quarterbacks are better at certain plays,” Malzahn said. “You want to call certain plays, and we’ve been practicing like that for a while. Our guys knew what to expect. So that was the plan.”

When it was finally over, Auburn made a total of 23 substitutions at quarterback. Five different players took snaps for the Tigers.

“It’s a little crazy,” Kerryon Johnson said after the game. “But when you have five different guys that are capable of doing it, why not?

“We had a plan. The [quarterbacks] knew generally this formation or this play, whatever the case may be, they knew when they were going to go in. [Malzahn] is not going to call something, want another quarterback and not tell them to go in. When you’re on the sideline, we all just stay close. Coach Malzahn loves to make adjustments midgame. He does a very good of doing that. You stay close and you just listen for your name.”

The players knew the plan. The coaches knew the plan. So why is it that everybody else is still trying to figure out what this plan is and why it didn’t work?

Moving forward, Malzahn said he expects White to start again when Auburn hosts Arkansas State next Saturday. But don’t be surprised if you see all three quarterbacks again.

“We played all three, and we may continue to do that,” Malzahn said. “We’ll see how each game goes. We’ll see how everything turns out.”