AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey was familiar with Jarrett Stidham even before the two had a face-to-face meeting.
Lindsey recruited the quarterback while working as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State. They had a good rapport after speaking on the phone several times. Yet when Lindsey joined Gus Malzahn’s staff and officially became Stidham’s coach, he loved what the Texas native had to offer.
“You saw a guy that was really motivated, really excited to prepare, to come in every day and watch extra film and learn the offense,” Lindsey said. “And then on the other side, learn defense. Protections, how we need to protect certain things, the scheme on defense, how the secondary is playing and all that. I just saw a guy that was eager and hungry and ready to get going, and that’s always exciting when you’re a coach.”
As Malzahn and Lindsey warned, everything didn’t go smoothly once Stidham put on an Auburn jersey and took the field. Still, the sophomore’s skill has helped Auburn navigate a daunting SEC schedule and reach its long-time goal of playing in the SEC Championship Game.
“Here’s what he gives us: He can make every throw, so when you can make every throw, from a coach’s standpoint, it opens up the playbook,” Malzahn said. “And it gives you more flexibility that if they’re cheating in one area, you can take advantage of it. He’s got an arm. He can go hash to hash, sideline to sideline. That helps.”
Stidham always had the potential. It’s why he ended up at Baylor and earned the top JUCO prospect ranking from ESPN when he left. All he needed was a little bit of time.
Malzahn stressed Stidham’s inexperience throughout the spring, summer and preseason practice. Entering a conference boasting some of the nation’s best defenses wouldn’t make adjusting any easier.
And then, of course, there was the fact that Auburn traveled to Death Valley to face then-No. 2 Clemson in Week 2.
Playing Dabo Swinney’s team seemed, at least for those watching the game, nightmarish for Stidham. He was sacked 11 times and completed just about 55 percent of his throws. His quarterback rating against Clemson (88.82) would be his lowest of the season.
In the days leading up to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, Stidham revealed how he was feeling during Auburn’s first road trip of the year. His answer was somewhat surprising.
“It’s funny. Believe it or not, I actually felt pretty comfortable in the Clemson game, regardless of what happened that night,” Stidham said. “Just kind of being back out there, being comfortable and that kind of thing, I actually felt like I was on the way to having success.”
During the weeks after the loss, Stidham really started feeling like himself in his new home. His only focus was improving “every week.”
Lindsey continued to get familiar with his starting quarterback as well. Putting Stidham in situations and building “around his strengths” was critical. Stidham’s willingness to run the football only made his passing ability even more deadly.
“It’s really opened up other things and he’s playing at a high level at the quarterback position, which is what you’ve got to do,” Malzahn said. “If you want a chance to win championships in our league, your quarterback has to play at a high level, and he’s done that so far.
“And he’ll need to do that again Saturday.”
The Iron Bowl was one of five games this season where the Auburn quarterback completed 75 percent or more of his pass attempts — and there were others that weren’t too far off. His improvement was undeniable.
Against Alabama, Stidham completed 21 of his 28 pass attempts for 237 yards, adding 51 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
“He’s continued to improve his decision-making,” Lindsey said. “[He knows] when the play is dead and when to throw it away. He threw it away a couple of times the other night, which was good. You know, he protected the ball, because those guys, they get after the quarterback. They have. They get after everybody. So just thought he made really good decisions. Obviously, throwing it, he can throw it. That’s a given. But the decision-making, I think that’s what’s been most impressive.”
Perhaps the best part for Stidham is that while he’s come a long way, there’s still a long road ahead. He’s proven he can do it all and do it at against top competition. Now it’s just time to rinse and repeat — starting again Saturday with the No. 3 passing defense in the nation.
He’ll keep learning, and in return, Auburn has a good chance to keep winning.
“He’s got a comfort right now,” Malzahn said. “He’s playing just comfortable football. There was some guys rushing the passer last week that are dynamic that were right around him, and he was real relaxed and then he got rid of the football and then got hit. He’s playing a lot more comfortable than he was earlier in the year.”
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