Aubserver Mailbag 140: Why can't Auburn get a strong passing game going?
This week: Jarquez Hunter, turnover luck, The Middle 8, the best defensive linemen in Auburn history, basketball hype and Talladega
QB Payton Thorne (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
Off weeks are all about making adjustments.
I’ve now done 140 of these mailbags for The Observer alone, and I did countless more at my previous two employers. And, every week, I’m unsure just how to write an intro for them.
These things are usually massive, so why do I need to waste your time with drawn-out stuff at the beginning? Unless I have a clear-cut idea or a running theme, this starts to feel like a lot of filler.
This week, the answer to the lead question is, once again, a long one. I don’t need to go through the motions of having a real introduction here, and now I’m thinking I might not need to do one in future ones.
Does it read better this way? Do you actually like intros? Do you not care at all and just want to see your question get answered? Let me know. Let’s go.
Why does it feel like Auburn is, on a program level, incapable of having a passing attack that our contemporaries genuinely worried about facing? Even the best of the best passing attacks we've had recently only work if the run game is dominant: 2017, 2014, 2013, 2010.
I’ve thought about this question, or some sort of variation of it, for a while now. The further away we get from 2013, the more apparent it is that a championship-caliber Auburn is going to have to have a good-to-great passing attack.
The sport of football continues to trend more toward the air, and the biggest thing that has kept the Tigers from being a consistent contender, statistically, is an explosive passing attack. I’ve written about this topic extensively in a couple of previous newsletters: One from the very first month of our existence and another one from earlier this year.
But why Auburn? Why has this program only had a few flashes of strong passing over the years? I think it’s a combination of factors, with the two biggest ones being the specific head coaches Auburn has had over the years and the type of talent that the Tigers have brought into the program.
Auburn has only had two 3,000-yard passing seasons ever: Dameyune Craig in 1997 and Jarrett Stidham in 2017. To show you just how small that is, 38 FBS quarterbacks reached that number in 2022 alone. There were 34 in 2021. Thirteen FBS schools have had 3,000-yard passers in back-to-back seasons, meaning they’ve had as many in the last two years as Auburn has had in the history of the program.
But think about the head coaches Auburn has had in the modern era. Pat Dye had wishbone and ball-control I-formation offenses. The Tigers aired it out more under Terry Bowden, but his tenure was shorter than Tommy Tuberville and his preferred run-and-play-defense style. (The attempt to move to the Tony Franklin attack didn’t go well.) Gene Chizik had Gus Malzahn, who was much more known for his rushing attacks out of the up-tempo spread than the passing game.
We’re talking about multiple decades of run-first football. Many of those seasons were successful, and several netted championships. But it’s still pretty telling that Auburn’s No. 5 all-time passer (Pat Sullivan) and No. 1 receiver (Terry Beasley) played in just three seasons from 1969 to 1971. Compare that to a history of elite running backs like Bo Jackson, Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, James Brooks, Joe Cribbs, Tre Mason, Rudi Johnson and Tank Bigsby — some of whom played in the same backfield together — and you can see why Auburn has leaned this way.
It’s also a matter of talent acquisition, too. According to 247Sports, Auburn has only signed six quarterbacks out of high school who were in the top 10 nationally in their class. (Walker White could be No. 7.) The list of top-10 receivers is even smaller, and that’s a position where you can conceivably get multiple elite players in the same class. (Perry Thompson is on track to be Auburn’s second-ever 5-star wideout.)
Auburn has brought in fantastic running backs over the years, but the same can’t be said for quarterbacks and wide receivers in terms of pure volume. And that’s a big reason why the Tigers’ passing attacks haven’t consistently measured up to other top-20 programs in college football. You’ve got to have the right coaching staff in place, and you’ve got to bring in the dudes.
That brings us to Auburn’s current position in 2023. Hugh Freeze and Philip Montgomery arguably have the best track record for passing games of any head coach-and-offensive coordinator combination in program history. It’s a big reason why they’re both on the Plains right now.
But it’s going to take time. Auburn tried to put together a new-look passing attack through the transfer portal this offseason, and it hasn’t clicked yet. That doesn’t mean it won’t at any point this year, but the early returns have not been great. Again, this is a bridge season — one where Auburn is trying to build toward the future, which should contain more blue-chip high school talents such as White and Thompson.
Of course, it’s completely fair for fans to expect more out of even a makeshift passing game than what Auburn has shown so far. Improving that had to be a priority in the off week. The 2023 passing attack was always going to be a work in progress, though, especially if Payton Thorne didn’t make a smooth, instantaneous transition to a brand-new type of offense. It’s safe to say that’s held up through the first five games.
I don’t think Auburn is ever going to turn into an Air Raid team or some sort of pass-heavy attack. When the Tigers have been better through the air over the years, it’s usually come with a strong rushing attack — which is a great thing. Balance is huge. But balance doesn’t mean a 50/50 run-pass split. It means you can win with either facet of your offense, depending on what the defense is throwing at you.
Auburn hasn’t been able to truly say that about its passing game for a while. Freeze’s big goal is to get the program in that spot. While the Tigers should be at least hitting triple-digits in passing yardage most of the time, they were never going to be instantly awesome through the air in 2023. It takes time to change the direction of a program, even from a scheme-and-strengths perspective.
RB Jarquez Hunter (Zach Bland/Auburn Tigers)
I know the entire offense hasn’t been producing, but is it unfair of me to be disappointed about Jarquez Hunter’s numbers so far? I feel like I expected more but i don't really know how to feel.
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