One of the more intriguing position battles in the SEC this fall is taking place at Auburn, where junior Kiehl Frazier, sophomore Jonathan Wallace, junior Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson are all vying for the top spot on the Tigers' depth chart.
The two newcomers to fall camp are the ones who are making waves.
Access to statistics and first-hand information is limited during Auburn's fall camp, but according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello, Marshall—a junior college transfer and former defensive back at Georgia, and Johnson—who was playing high school football a year ago, were both impressive in Saturday's scrimmage.
Each tossed long touchdown passes (Marshall to tight end Brandon Fulse and Johnson to wide receiver Ricardo Louis) and looked sharp in the pocket in the 85-play scrimmage, which was important because head coach Gus Malzahn was specifically looking for separation at the quarterback spot.
"Our goal after this scrimmage was to narrow things down at all positions, but specifically the quarterback position," Malzahn told Marcello. "Hopefully, after we watch film, we’ll have a chance to do that somewhat."
That's big for Auburn, because while Frazier and Wallace made strides this spring, neither separated himself and showed that he has what it takes to be a star in Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense. If Marshall and Johnson have gained traction this quickly that says—at the very least—they've shown the potential to handle the responsibility and be responsible with the football.
That was Auburn's biggest issue last season.
Frazier tossed eight interceptions in four-and-a-half games, and Wallace ended the season with four touchdowns and four picks—but two of those touchdowns came in mop-up duty versus Texas A&M and the other two were against New Mexico State and Alabama A&M.
Marshall and Johnson legitimately competing for the job has given Malzahn options. Newcomers aren't expected to come right in and compete, but that both of them have and essentially leveled the playing field is exactly what Auburn needed 12 days into fall camp.
Plus, they've been doing it in the middle of a four-man race when snaps are precious, which is a big reason why Malzahn has put pressure on himself to narrow things down.
"You can’t keep repping four guys at quarterback and properly evaluate them as it gets closer," Malzahn told Marcello.
Will he gamble and give the newcomers more reps as he narrows the race down?
It's probably more likely with Marshall than Johnson, because if Johnson is close to any of the three primary competitors, Malzahn is best-served redshirting him and giving him another year to develop.
Marshall needs more snaps, so don't be surprised if he "makes the cut."
After playing defensive back at Georgia in 2011, Marshall was a bit raw when he moved back to quarterback last season for Garden City (Kan.) Community College and tossed 18 touchdowns and 20 interceptions.
But the film on Marshall speaks for itself.
He has a big arm, is accurate on the run and has the athleticism to be a big-time dual threat in the offense.
It's going to be an interesting week on the Plains. The eventual winner in the quarterback battle needs to start getting first-team snaps sooner rather than later, and Malzahn's decision on the two newcomers will speak volumes about what he feels the ceiling is for each of them.
According to Justin Hokanson of AuburnSports.com, the two newcomers have indeed become the finalists for the job, with junior Kiehl Frazier moving to safety.
#Auburn HC Gus Malzahn says the plan this week is to give Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson the majority of the reps.— Justin Hokanson (@JHokanson) August 12, 2013
Kiehl Frazier has decided to move to safety, Gus Malzahn says.— Justin Hokanson (@JHokanson) August 12, 2013
The move of Frazier to safety came out of left field, but Malzahn narrowing it down to Marshall and Johnson is what's best. If Marshall and Johnson performed at an equal level to the two incumbents only a week-and-a-half into practice, common sense says that they'll improve with more practice reps.