AUBURN, Ala. -- If Tony Franklin's history didn't prove that the man is utterly incapable of limiting himself to coachspeak, the following declaration might sound like a ploy to put a positive spin on the fact that neither of his top two quarterbacks has played well enough to wrestle the starting job away from the other.
"The longer this thing progresses," the first-year Auburn offensive coordinator said last week after another practice spent weighing the pluses and minuses of Kodi Burns and Chris Todd, "the more it becomes such a wonderful problem."
Anybody else, and the sentiment might sound less than genuine. But unlike most coaches, Franklin rarely minces words. This is the man who sold his offense the way Ron Popeil sells Showtime rotisserie ovens. Heck, Franklin is the man who broke the coaches' playground code of silence and blew the whistle on boss Hal Mumme's shady recruiting practices at Kentucky and then wrote a book about it. So when Franklin, who was hired to give Auburn an offense worthy of its ferocious defense, says he can live with an extended quarterback competition, we can allow him the benefit of the doubt.
Still, conventional football wisdom dictates that if you don't have one quarterback, you have no quarterback. Florida and LSU won national titles in 2006 and 2007 by playing two quarterbacks, but Chris Leak and Matt Flynn were the clear starters on those teams, while Tim Tebow and Ryan Perrilloux were the change-ups.
As Auburn's quarterback competition rages on, it seems more likely that even if Franklin and head coach Tommy Tuberville designate a starter, they'll only be picking the guy who trots onto the field first when the Tigers open Aug. 30 against Louisiana-Monroe. Burns, a sophomore who served as the change-up to Brandon Cox last year in Al Borges' West Coast offense, and Todd, who ran Franklin's offense for his dad at Elizabethtown (Ky.) High before stints at Texas Tech and Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, each will take significant snaps until one proves he can consistently run Franklin's spread better than the other.
History suggests that any offense will sputter if two quarterbacks split snaps all season. And even though Burns and Todd have said all the right things so far, Burns let slip last week that he worries the Tigers may not give both players the respect a starting quarterback deserves. "The hardest part is trying to be a leader, because guys look at you and see that you're splitting reps with another guy and they're not so sure if you're the guy," Burns said. "I think that's the hardest thing for me. In high school and even last year, they would say, 'Hey, Brandon Cox is the starter. He's the man. When he says something, we're going to listen to him.' "
Tuberville isn't worried. He believes the forging fire of preseason camp will establish both quarterbacks as leaders. "Kodi and Chris are both a little bit tired. Their arms are tired," Tuberville said. "They're hanging in there, as you need your quarterbacks to do. You need them to step up and show the players around them that they can withstand anything just like they can. You need good camaraderie and you need good leadership out of your quarterbacks and both these guys are good friends who are competing well."
Tuberville and Franklin can say all this because what they seek is the ultimate system quarterback. No, really. Franklin's offense -- which retails for $2,995 if you're a high school coach in need of a new scheme -- is called The System. They don't need Peyton Manning. They need a quarterback with a decent arm who can consistently, precisely complete a set of short- and mid-range throws and who can, on a running play, read the mind of a 260-pound defensive end bent on decapitating him. And he must be able to do all of this at a breakneck, no-huddle pace that could produce 90 snaps a game (the Division I-A average last year was 71.7).
Each candidate has his strengths. Burns is a slippery runner who will force defenses to slow their rush for fear that he might tuck the ball and escape. Todd knows the offense intimately, and, at least until Burns gains more experience, Todd will prove more adept at scanning the defense and finding a weakness he can exploit.
Still, it's unfair to pigeonhole Burns as the running quarterback. Burns said that's exactly what happened last year, and he began to wonder himself if he had the chops to throw in the SEC. That's why Burns popped in his high school highlight video this spring. As he watched himself launch passes with a flick of his wrist, he realized that it wasn't a fluke that he threw for 6,020 yards and 65 touchdowns in three years as the starter at Northside High in Fort Smith, Ark. "When I came to Auburn and they kind of turned me into more of a run guy, I started questioning myself," Burns said. "I was like, 'Maybe they're running me for a reason.' I watched some film and was like, 'I can do this. Nothing has changed. The speed of the game has changed, but my arm is still here.' I knew I could throw as well as any quarterback in this league."
While Burns has had to fight perception, Todd has struggled with physical limitation. He spent the spring frustrated by a nagging injury to his throwing shoulder that most closely resembles a baseball pitcher's "dead arm." The arm came back to life over the summer, but Todd didn't have a chance to put any distance between himself and Burns. "It's night and day, really," Todd said of the improvement in his arm. "The spring was really frustrating. Especially when you first get to a new school, you want to show everybody what you have. ... If I wanted to rope a post in there or if I wanted to throw a deep comeback, it was almost to the point where I had to throw it before (the receiver) broke. You want to throw a ball when somebody sticks a route, when they're just coming out of (their break), but I was almost having to throw before that so it would get there at the same time."
While the quarterback derby makes for great theater in football-crazy Alabama, selecting a traditional starter may have no appreciable impact on Auburn's fortunes. Auburn's offense will have a chance to grow under Franklin, because the Tigers won't need to score many points to win most of their games. They allowed 16.9 points a game last year, and with tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, end Antonio Coleman and linebacker Tray Blackmon leading a pack of veterans, they may allow even fewer points this season.
Besides, Auburn's defenders said, Franklin's offense has produced an unexpected benefit. The frantic pace the offense employs in practice has gotten the defense in shape while also teaching defenders to digest signals from the sideline and make pre-snap reads in mere seconds. The first time an opponent huddles, Auburn players may get bored waiting for the snap. "When practice is over, we're drained. We're dead," cornerback Jerraud Powers said. "They say the offense will get 90-plus snaps a game. Imagine what we're doing in practice."
So while Auburn's defense gets more ruthlessly efficient than it already was, Franklin will try to pick a quarterback who might help the offense improve to the point where the defense won't have to carry the Tigers every game. Or he might not pick just one. Franklin, the ultimate offense salesman, seems to have sold himself on a two-quarterback system.
"Right now, I'd have a very difficult time (choosing one)," Franklin said. "They're both really good. They're both making plays. They're both getting better at their weaknesses. Kodi's getting a lot better throwing. Chris is getting a lot better running.
"This has been the most fun part for me about watching the quarterbacks. It's like a great heavyweight championship fight. One guy lands what you think is a knockout blow and the other guy falls against the ropes; and five seconds later he comes back and he lands a blow you think is going to knock the other one out. It happens every day, where one guy will make an incredible throw that just blows your mind, and the other one will walk in and trump it. It shows they are both competitors and neither one of them wither from the competition."