AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn isn't going to mention them by name. He's not going to speak directly about Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa or any of the drama currently engulfing Auburn's in-state rivals 150 miles to the northwest.
It's not on the head coach of the Tigers to comment on Alabama or its ongoing quarterback controversy, even though it has dominated local and national headlines since Nick Saban pulled Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa at halftime of the College Football Playoff Championship against Georgia in January.
But as Malzahn sat in his office one muggy afternoon in mid-August, he admitted that he's happy not to be in that kind of sticky situation. Happy to have what he believes is the most stable program in the SEC with all but one of his assistant coaches back (Alabama replaced six). Happy to have perhaps the best quarterback in the state in junior Jarrett Stidham.
"No doubt," Malzahn said in his typically blunt fashion. "One hundred percent."
Malzahn's belief in Stidham extends beyond the borders of Alabama, though. He said he wouldn't trade him for any quarterback in the country right now. When asked about the buzz that Stidham might be the top QB in next year's NFL draft, he didn't so much as blink.
"I can see that," Malzahn said coyly. "I think that's a fair assessment."
The head coach who turned Nick Marshall from a defensive back into one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, the former offensive coordinator who once helped Cam Newton become a Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 overall pick, sees all the traits of a top prospect in Stidham. He's an effective runner and has all the proverbial "arm talent" in the world, Malzahn said, with an ability to get rid of the ball quickly that offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said is faster than any he has ever seen.
But, as Malzahn pointed out, maybe more important than anything was the "physical and mental toughness" Stidham showed during the course of his first season on The Plains, playing through the pain of a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder for months and working his way through some early struggles adjusting to a new offense.
A year ago, Malzahn tried (and failed) to warn reporters against hyping Stidham as a Heisman candidate, cautioning that he might experience growing pains. He hadn't played competitive football in a year as he waited to transfer from Baylor, and even then he'd started only three games in his career. People just assumed that the spread, uptempo offense he ran at Baylor would translate perfectly to the spread, uptempo offense used at Auburn. But that wasn't the case. They might have looked similar on the surface, but the routes receivers ran were structured differently and, in the words of Lindsey, the protection schemes were "totally different."
"For a big-time quarterback, it's how they deal with pressure. There wasn't one time I felt last year where the moment was too big. That's a very unique quality that most quarterbacks don't have."Gus Malzahn
All that came to a head when Auburn went to Clemson for a prime-time matchup in Week 2 and lost by a deflating final score of 14-6. It was a disaster on offense that could have broken Stidham as he was sacked an eye-popping 11 times, finishing with just 79 yards passing and no touchdowns. A second-half meltdown at LSU a month later might have inflicted further damage when it appeared that Malzahn was suddenly fighting for his job.
But instead Malzahn and Lindsey saw a quarterback who was unaffected by negative attention, powered through, and went on a tear during the month of November that bordered on the absurd. In four games, including two home games against No. 1-ranked teams Georgia and Alabama, Auburn went undefeated as Stidham completed 73.5 percent of his passes for 954 yards, 8 touchdowns and 1 interception. What's more, he rushed for two scores as the Tigers earned a trip to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.
"For a big-time quarterback, it's how they deal with pressure," Malzahn said. "There wasn't one time I felt last year where the moment was too big. That's a very unique quality that most quarterbacks don't have."
Of course there was a bitter ending as Auburn lost twice in Atlanta -- once in the SEC championship game to Georgia and again in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to UCF. But ask Stidham about it and he'll tell you that it wasn't all that difficult to get over. He joked of going back to Atlanta to start the season against No. 6 Washington (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), "Three in a row, baby. Hopefully the third time is a charm."
The truth is that just as Stidham said the losses at Clemson and LSU made him the player he was the rest of the regular season, back-to-back losses to Georgia and UCF in the postseason will shape who he is moving forward.
"Especially guys that are returning this year, we all have that sense of urgency that, 'Hey, we were this close last year.' We know what it takes to get there and we're all just trying to find that one little extra step that will help us get over the hump this year."Jarrett Stidham
"The SEC championship, we were realistically -- and I know the score doesn't show that -- but realistically we were a quarter away from making the playoff. Going into the fourth quarter, we have the ball around midfield, down 6, and from that moment on it didn't go our way and they ran away with it," Stidham said. "Especially guys that are returning this year, we all have that sense of urgency that, 'Hey, we were this close last year.' We know what it takes to get there and we're all just trying to find that one little extra step that will help us get over the hump this year."
For Stidham that meant a busy offseason. In early June, he went to Los Angeles for the Elite 11 camp, and a couple of weeks later he was off to Thibodaux, Louisiana, for the Manning Passing Academy. He got engaged to Baylor soccer player Kennedy Brown in early July and then turned around later that month and went to San Clemente, California, where he spent time with QB coach and former NFL journeyman Jordan Palmer.
Earlier this year, he worked out with Buffalo Bills first-round pick Josh Allen before the draft. The two quarterbacks watched film, drew up plays on the whiteboard and talked defensive coverages nonstop during the visit.
"I love learning more about it," Stidham said.
Auburn coaches have been consistently impressed by Stidham's professional approach since arriving on campus last year. Lindsey could sense the cliché coming, but it didn't stop him from pointing out how Stidham was the "first one in the building and the last one to leave."
"He's always going to watch extra film," Lindsey said. "Mondays when we're game planning, he's doing his own game planning. He wants to be the best he can be. His goals are very high, personal and team goals. He tries to live that all the time."
Said strength coach Ryan Russell: "It's awesome because he approaches the quarterback position, it's not a position, it's a lifestyle to him. ... He's always coming to us and talking to us about certain things he can do to gain an edge, gain an advantage."
Stidham's No. 1 goal this offseason, he said, was working on his pocket presence and "to stay in the pocket as long as I can to deliver a throw" -- a point that both Malzahn and Lindsey would bring up separately as well.
In fact, the trio of quarterback, coordinator and head coach seem to be perfectly in sync after a year together.
Stidham said that he and coaches are able to connect on a "more strategic level" now. And, as a result, it has given them the confidence to hand over more of the offense.
Malzahn said of Stidham at one point this summer, "We're going to turn him loose."
What that tangibly means is tough to nail down, though. Some of the narrative coming out of Auburn that Stidham will have greater control has been overblown, Lindsey and Malzahn both said. But depending on the situation, you could see Stidham looking to the sideline for help less this year when it comes to making adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
"I want to be the best possible player for this team, first and foremost," Stidham said. "And then, from a quarterback perspective, my goal is to be the best quarterback in the country."
Starting with the season opener against Washington and its all-conference QB Jake Browning, Stidham will get plenty of chances to measure himself against the best of the best. On Oct. 6, he'll go to Mississippi State and face its Heisman-caliber QB Nick Fitzgerald, and a month later, it's on to Georgia and Jake Fromm.
Of course, the regular season will culminate as it always does with the Iron Bowl and whomever Alabama trots out at quarterback. Stidham spent time with Hurts at the Elite 11 and Manning Passing Academy this summer, and considers him a friend given their Texas high school connections. But he wouldn't dare handicap the competition with Tagovailoa, saying, "I'll leave that to other people."
For now, it's all about focusing on the task at hand and recreating the success he had last November when he beat Alabama and showed that he might just be the best quarterback in the state.
He'd be lying if he said he didn't want to be in the conversation for the top QB in next year's draft, but that's a long way off.
"Our goal as a team is to get back to Atlanta, but finish a little bit better than we did last year," he said.