HOOVER, Ala. – To the answer of the biggest mystery Gus Malzahn is waiting to solve, it’s – ta-da! – well, he doesn’t know yet.
It’s either Ian Shannon or Daniel Carlson.
One of those guys will be Auburn’s punter, “probably the biggest question mar about the team,” Malzahn said.
You were expecting a verdict on quarterback, which Malzahn called “our Achilles heel the last two years”?
Auburn coaches have been coming to the SEC Media Days, as Malzahn did on Thursday, without a definite starting quarterback since Aubie was a kitten. Nothing new this time.
Sean White is the incumbent. He’s been outstanding at times, less so at other times when he’s been banged up. And few SEC quarterbacks have been made to feel like a piñata more often than White.
Then, following the tradition that the most popular guy on campus is the backup quarterback, there is much adoration being heaped upon Jarrett Stidham, a sophomore who has transferred from the woebegone Baylor program.
Malzahn not only allowed no insight into the starting QB, he kept the enthusiasm needle fairly level.
“The biggest comfort right now is we have quality depth at the quarterback position,” he said.
“Jarrett Stidham is a very talented young man. I think that’s a common sense deal. What he’s done since he’s been at Auburn, just his leadership. He’s really done a good job trying to win over his teammates,” Malzahn said.
As for White, “When Sean White’s healthy, he plays at extremely high level. Last year when we got on that roll, that six-game win streak, he was leading the league in completions and quarterback efficiency.”
If demeanor says anything about Auburn’s chances, Malzahn was more at ease, even cracking a couple of jokes, than he’s ever been at SEC Media Days.
Then again, he benefitted by comparison to his colleagues Thursday morning.
First, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp came to the main media room. He always seems as if he should be carrying a Red Bull can.
Then the event’s punctuation was Hugh Freeze of Ole Miss, who prompted the first widespread use of the word “filibuster” among Southeastern sports media since the days of Dale Brown coaching hoops at LSU.
Freeze was truly personifying his name, rambling long enough to avoid as many questions as possible.
Ole Miss (a) is serving a self-imposed bowl ban this year as the NCAA keeps drawing out the verdict on its investigation and (b) has been served a lawsuit by former coach Houston Nutt. Among the allegations, Nutt says Freeze has defamed him through a series of calls to journalists.
These are, understandably, not the sort of topics that make a coach’s heart grow giddy when staring out at a room full of journalists whose sunny dispositions began to dwindle somewhere along about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
Freeze’s best job security may not be cobbling together a winning season out of this mess but that Ole Miss feels toxic to any potential successor.
So, now, the awkward segue back to Auburn, where Malzahn has gone 8-5, 7-6 and 8-5 after his 12-2 debut but may have helped insure his future by yielding play-calling duties to Chip Lindsey. That may be his best call. Malzahn has perhaps learned the hard way there are too many other things to juggle as a head coach.
A good team is good insurance, too.
“The biggest thing that’s standing out to me about this team, that they’re hungry. They’re hungry and they’ve got something to prove. And really the last time I felt this was 2013,” he said.
With that hunger, and if Stidham or White have exceptional seasons, it may not matter that much who punts the ball.
Mark McCarter, a four-time Alabama Sports Writer of the Year and a reporter and columnist for 35-plus years, is a special contributor for WHNT.com at the 2017 SEC Media Days. Follow his columns and live blogs this week on WHNT.com.