When spring practice kicks off in just a few months, Auburn will have a battle for the starting QB position like it has had every single year since 2008.
Former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has returned to the Plains as Auburn's head coach and he will be bringing the familiar style of offense that QB Kiehl Frazier and the rest of the Auburn offense are comfortable in and were recruited for.
Does Malzahn's return mean that Kiehl Frazier should automatically be the favorite for the starting QB job in 2013?
It does not. And it shouldn't.
It wasn't too long ago that Auburn fans were celebrating the signature on a National Letter of Intent of Frazier, the 2010 USA Today Player of the Year. They had good reason to celebrate. After all, Frazier threw for 2,975 yards and 12 TDs in his senior year of high school. On the ground, he rushed for 1,164 yards and 22 TDs.
He accomplished those gaudy numbers while running a watered-down version of Malzahn's offense. Malzahn was coach of Frazier's high school, Shiloh Christian, from 1996-2000 and turned the program into a state power. It was one of his stops before taking his high-powered offense to the college level.
Whispers of a "miniature Cam Newton" circulated when he signed on to play for Malzahn in the 2011 recruiting class. Malzahn had been recruiting Frazier since the 8th grade.
In 2011, Frazier saw a limited playbook in a Malzahn offense that had been reigned in by former head coach Gene Chizik. Frazier was used mainly in the read-option play where he would hand the ball off or keep the ball on a QB run. Everyone knew what was coming when Frazier entered the game. Frazier made some decent runs but was kept in check the entire season.
His 2011 season ended with 327 yards rushing on 76 attempts. Frazier only attempted 12 passes during the season. He completed five passes and threw two interceptions. Still, he was the presumptuous favorite to be Auburn's starting QB for 2012.
As presumed, Frazier earned the starting position to begin the season. Under a new offensive coordinator and an inexplicable shift to the pro-style offense under former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, Frazier struggled mightily from the outset in the 2012 season.
He was noticeably uncomfortable going under center and in the pocket. It was obvious from Week 1 that he was a bad fit for Loeffler's offense. After a 1-3 start in September, Frazier was pulled in lieu of Clint Moseley at halftime of the Arkansas game. After that, Frazier only saw the field in mop-up duty.
In all fairness, it should also be noted that Frazier was not 100% for the entire season. He had shoulder issues after he was benched during the Arkansas game.
While a lot of Frazier's struggles in 2012 were due to being in a system he was not comfortable in and possibly to injury, there were deeper, more fundamental issues that compounded those struggles.
There were signs everywhere before the season pointing to what happened in 2012.
Frazier was having trouble winning the starting QB job in spring and fall practice over an injured Moseley and a freshman in Jonathan Wallace. Before Auburn's first game against Clemson, Moseley claimed that he would be "on the disabled list if he were a pitcher" (via Charles Goldberg, AL.com).
Frazier was named the starting QB just nine days before Auburn's opener.
During the season, it seemed that the game was moving way too fast for Frazier (as it often does for young QBs) and that led to numerous bad decisions that resulted in turnovers and an inability to garner any offensive momentum.
Frazier blamed a lot of his struggles early in the season on watching the rush instead of keeping his eyes downfield and progressing through his reads. (via Joel Erickson, AL.com)
After the Mississippi State game, Frazier admitted that he'd been paralyzed in the pocket at times watching the rush, a problem that he says has gotten better against Louisiana-Monroe and LSU.
Against Mississippi State, Frazier threw three interceptions and completed just one of his seven passes in the first half.
Frazier also struggled with evading the rush. He is a very gifted athlete and it appeared that he was scared to use his escape ability. It was not uncommon for Auburn to take a 10-yard loss on a sack when Frazier did not feel the pocket collapsing in on him instead of escaping the rush and gaining some yards or throwing the ball out of bounds.
The good news for Frazier and all of the Auburn QBs is that all of these things are coachable and fixable. Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee are very familiar with Frazier.
"I think it's nothing but a plus with Coach Malzahn and myself being familiar with some of the guys, and them being familiar with us," Lashlee says. "It can only help when we install this thing" (via Charles Goldberg, AL.com).
The other good news is that Malzahn has worked wonders with QBs who have struggled before. At Tulsa, Malzahn took Tulsa QB Paul Smith and nearly doubled his passing yardage (from 2,727 in 2006 to 5,065 in 2007) and tripled his TD passes (from 15 in 2006 to 47 in 2007). Smith was fourth in the nation in passing efficiency under Malzahn in 2007.
Auburn fans saw what Malzahn did in 2009 with Chris Todd, who (like Frazier) was benched midway through the 2008 season. Through seven games in 2008, Todd threw more interceptions (6) than he did TDs (5).
In 2009, Malzahn's first year as offensive coordinator at Auburn, Todd started all 13 games and threw for over 2,600 yards. He threw 22 TDs and only six interceptions.
There is always a chance that Frazier or one of the other QBs will follow in the footsteps of Smith and Todd under Malzahn. But right now, it's too soon to jump to that conclusion.
Malzahn's offense will undoubtedly be a welcome sight for Frazier, but based on his fundamentals and decision-making ability in 2012, Frazier should not be the presumed favorite to be Auburn's starting QB in 2013.