July 15, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – Kiehl Frazier. Nick Marshall. Jonathan Wallace. Jeremy Johnson.
When Auburn’s football team begins preseason practice in early August, their every move will be discussed and dissected. They are the candidates to be Auburn’s starting quarterback in Gus Malzahn’s first season, and until a decision is made, they will dominate the conversation.
Frazier, a junior, has been there before, winning the starting job last summer and starting six games before giving way to Clint Moseley and then to Wallace, who started the last four games of his freshman season. Marshall, a junior college transfer, and Johnson, a true freshman, have yet to go through their first Auburn practice.
At some point, probably in mid-August, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will summon the quarterbacks to talk. They’ll tell one he has won the job.
Those who have been there before say the tension is high on decision day. In 1998, Ben Leard won the starting job as a sophomore, only to lose it to Gabe Gross. In 1999, Gross won the starting job, but Leard was back in the lineup in the second game of Tommy Tuberville’s first season.
Finishing second can be a painful experience.
“It is a difficult, difficult pill to swallow, especially when you are told just weeks before the first game,” Leard says. “You go through two-a-days and just before the first game, they say ‘You and Gabe come up to the meeting room and let’s talk.’
“What’s behind Door No. 3? That’s how you feel. You walk in knowing full well in your mind they are giving you the keys to the offense. When you are told the coaching staff feels the other guy gives the team a better chance to win, it hurts. It really hurts.”
Frazier and Wallace competed through spring practice, but neither took control. Marshall, an elite athlete and record-setting high school quarterback, played in 13 games at cornerback at Georgia as a freshman before transferring to Garden City (Kan.) Community College. Johnson, from Carver High School in Montgomery, was one of the South’s top prospects.
Unlike other positions, where two or even three players might get significant playing time, at quarterback only the starter is assured of playing at all. With all four quarterbacks having the ability to run, there might be a need even for a wildcat quarterback in the coming season.
The key for dealing with the disappointment, Leard says, is for those who don’t win the job to look at themselves and not look for someone to blame. After he lost the job in 1998, Leard was visibly supportive of Gross, frequently leaving the sideline to meet him coming off the field.
“As a quarterback, I still had a lot of work to do,” Leard says. “I eventually determined every time I point a finger, I have quite a few pointing back at me. The common denominator was me. Once I realized that, I was basically able to get over myself. That was a growing process, too.”
In 2000, after leading Auburn to nine wins and the SEC Championship Game, Leard was the All-SEC quarterback.
“To go to Atlanta, to finish undefeated at home, to win the West, to go to Tuscaloosa and beat Alabama, those kinds of things made every trial and tribulation worth it,” Leard says. “I’d go back and do it again in a heartbeat.”
In 2009, Kodi Burns became forever an Auburn favorite for how he dealt with the news that Chris Todd would be Auburn’s starting quarterback. Burns went on to become a wide receiver and leader on the 2010 national championship team.
“That’s just one of those deals where you have a choice to make,” says Burns, now an Auburn graduate assistant. “The decision at the time that I made was the right one. That was to keep the team together, knowing I could transfer and go to another school and start. Whether things were unfair and didn’t go my way, who knows? Who will ever know? The bottom line is I stuck it out and won a national championship. You just have to persevere through things and not quit.”
As a redshirt freshman in 1999, Stan White won a three-way race in the spring and went on to be a four-year starter. The quarterback who wins the job, he says, has to deal with a different kind of challenge.
“The biggest key is you put the hard work in, but also have fun and realize you got there for a reason,” White says. “When you start pressing and trying to do too much, that's when you struggle.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: