At 5:20 this afternoon, Auburn will go behind Jordan-Hare's closed doors for their first full-on scrimmage of the fall. The consensus is universal: if the Auburn quarterback race was "The Bachelor," this is our first rose ceremony. Malzahn's going to keep three (or maybe even two) guys around, and one (or maybe even two) guys are going
With Barrett Trotter hurt, Robert Cooper as much involved in the race as Alan Keyes was in the last Presidential election, and Clint Moseley having essentially recused himself to redshirt duty over the weekend (wonderfully self-aware kid, that Moseley--we'll hear from him down the road or I'll eat a bucket of worms), we're down to four remaining candidates. However: neither you nor I nor your buddy whose buddy has a buddy who works in the field house and who swears Chris Todd has been outfitted with a secret half-mechanical/half-gorilla cyborg arm that makes him a cinch to be the starter has any idea who's going to win the job. At the JCCW, the level of surprise associated with any of the four being named the starter for Louisiana Tech would be minimal.
But an Auburn blog can't really just throw up its hands and say "Hell if I know," can it? Races as important as this one have to be handicapped, even if we can expect about as much accuracy as we could handicapping a race of housecats. So keeping in mind that the margin between the top two here is more nonexistent than even razor-thin and that the fourth is probably the best athletic fit for this offense of the bunch, here's how I'll project the depth chart to shake out heading into the Louisiana Tech game.
Starter: Neil Caudle. I've been driving the increasingly light Burns bandwagon for most of the offseason, and in the interest of full disclosure, I feel like Burns has been done so wrong by the various coaches he's toiled under that he's the guy I'm most hoping wins the job.
But I'm always reluctant to go against conventional wisdom, and the conventional wisdom amongst Auburn fans regarding the quarterback race has become: It won't be Burns. And while of course sometimes (even frequently) conventional wisdom can be flat wrong, there's some reason to think that right now, at the end summer, this particular consensus is accurate. Burns entered spring with several inherent advantages over his competition--his athleticism and play-making ability, his comparative wealth of on-field experience, his familiarity with Malzahn--and by the end of the summer those advantages still hadn't earned him anything more than the dead heat with Caudle. It's like a political race: from the end of last season, Burns has gone from being the unquestioned starter to battling like hell for the job; Caudle has gone from afterthought to one prominent expert's pick for the starter's role. However much I'd like to say otherwise, "momentum" was on Caudle's side coming out of spring, and nothing happened to stop it over a summer in which Rollison and Caudle seemed to draw more "buzz" from the whispers trickling out of workouts.
Having always been too erratic (or injured) to see any serious playing time, Caudle has a ton to prove in terms of decision-making and on-field poise, and if he's more mobile than Todd (can you damn with fainter praise than that?) by all accounts he's not in Burns's league athletically. (We've covered at-length why this is important.) But if Malzahn and the team don't have the necessary confidence in Burns to make the easy throws, he won't get the job, and Caudle is the most likely benefactor. With the excitement surrounding Burns seemingly at a low ebb, right now, today, I'd have to make his chances vs. Burns at something like 51-49.
Backup: Kodi Burns. There are still so many reasons to expect Burns to win the job. That he's faced Georgia and Alabama and West Virginia and Ole Miss before. The zone read. An arm that still wields more brute force, hands-down, than Caudle's, an important factor for a coach that wants to go deep as often as Malzahn likes to go deep. The dynamism we saw in that one beautiful glimpse against Clemson lo these many moons ago, which I'm still convinced is hiding in Burns somewhere. And hell, Burns wasn't as bad last year as you may have been led to believe--yes, his interceptions were devastating against Ole Miss, yes, he did nothing in the Iron Bowl, yes, he couldn't get the offense into the end zone when it mattered against Georgia and Arkansas. But, uh, he was playing 1) with one of the SEC's worst receiving corps 2) behind a battered, underweight, and in some cases confused offensive line 3) for offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. Some slack should be given, particularly when Burns did hit the intermediate stuff against WVU, did hit the deep stuff against Ole Miss, did avoid the crippling interception against Georgia. He just never managed to put it all together.
So who's to say he couldn't do exactly that this season with another year under his belt? For the reasons listed above, the JCCW's crystal ball now shows Caudle coming out ahead by a nose, and if Malzahn goes in that direction (or in one of the other two listed below) you're not going to hear a word of complaint out of me. But I maintain that the Auburn quarterback with the highest ceiling for 2009, after everything, is still Kodi Burns.
Third-string: Chris Todd. First: yes, I do believe it's entirely possible Chris Todd will be Auburn's opening-day starter. You've all read the reports about how Todd's once-formidable arm strength is returning. You all know as well as I do that Todd was once Mike Leach's chosen heir to the Texas Tech quarterbacking throne, a recommendation we shouldn't take lightly. You all know that the competition in front of him is hardly intimidating. If Todd is truly healthy, look out.
But it's still hard for me to see him beating out Caudle or Burns, for several reasons:
1. I doubt he's truly healthy. The Chris Todd arm I saw in person last fall in the LSU game wasn't just a bit off: it was totally, irrevocably shot. I'm not a doctor, but to go from being that unhealthy to 100 percent good-to-go laser-rifledom in the span of one offseason just seems like asking a lot. I'll believe Todd has the zip we've all been promised he once had when I see it.
2. He didn't participate in the spring. This has to be a mark against him in comparison to Burns and Caudle, right?
3. His decision-making wasn't the greatest. Todd was as healthy as we've ever seen him in that first game against UL-Monroe, and he still threw a should-have-been pick straight into the arms of a Warhawk linebacker that Evil Brandon himself would have been proud of. His final appearance last season came against Arkansas, and his last two possessions of the year featured two incompletions, one sack, one 18-yard intentional grounding penalty, and one ghastly interception that was as bad as any I can remember at Auburn.
4. He's a statue. And the offense likes quarterbacks that aren't.
Because of Nos. 2, 3, and 4, it's not enough for Todd to just have the most accurate arm or be the best stereotypical "pocket quarterback" on the roster; he has to have the most substantially accurate arm and be definitively best pocket QB on the roster. It won't be a shock, of course, if it turns out he is and we're all treated to Todd 2: the Toddening. But it's enough for me to think Malzahn will finally settle on someone else.
Who knows: Tyrik Rollison. I'm not going to fully rehash what I've said once, twice already, but to sum up my take on Rollison: freshmen quarterbacks who are as accurate as Rollison was in high school aren't your typical freshmen quarterbacks. Add in the fact that Rollison's blend of accuracy and athleticism fits the Malzahn Spread Eagle more snugly than any his competitors, and you're looking at a kid who won't surprise me at all if he's the first choice off the bench if we need a new quarterback midseason.
That said: I think his chances of earning the job straight out of the gate aren't all that good. Still a freshman, still with tons to learn, still with three guys with far, far more experience than he has in front of him. We'll get to the Tyrik Rollison era eventually (in a perfect world, in 2010 at the earliest), but I'll have to think that if it starts against La. Tech, the first three candidates on this list will have been even worse than imagined. If we were discussing who's going to be the starter against, say, Furman I might have a couple of notches higher up the list ... but asking him to start the first game of his career is asking more than I suspect Chizik and Co. will feel comfortable with.
Any final thoughts? Just watch: now that I'm on the record, Caudle will be demoted to fourth-string by lunchtime tomorrow.