Auburn QB Sean White
Sean White has constantly been overlooked—in high school, among his peers, even on his own team.
No matter where he is, he has had to fight for attention.
The starting quarterback for the eighth-ranked Auburn Tigers fought for attention in the recruiting process, fought to earn Elite 11 MVP honors, fought his way to the top of Auburn’s depth chart and fought to become the conference’s top-rated (159.84) and most accurate (69.1 percent) QB through nine games.
“He’s ready for the moment,” running back Kerryon Johnson said after the win over Ole Miss. “If you ask him to do something, he’s going to get it done. He might not have to week in and week out, but when we need him to we know he will.”
Never was that more apparent than on Saturday, when John Franklin III started in place of a dinged-up White against Vanderbilt. Franklin entered halftime with just nine passing yards and a fumble, and the Tigers trailed 13-10 to a team that was a 25-point underdog, according to Odds Shark.
White completed 10 of his 13 second-half passes for 106 yards and a touchdown as Auburn pulled out a win and kept its College Football Playoff hopes alive.
“He was ready to go and obviously gave our offense a spark,” head coach Gus Malzahn said in quotes emailed by Auburn. “It looked like our offense. I’m real proud of him. He showed a lot of toughness.”
That’s been White’s mindset from the get-go.
At 6’0″, 200 pounds, White was hardly the most imposing quarterback in a class that included Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes and former Florida-turned-West Virginia quarterback Will Grier.
“One of the toughest things that Sean has had to battle is that he’s not as imposing in terms of arm strength, stature or foot speed,” said Brian Stumpf, president of Student Sports, which runs the Elite 11 high school quarterback competition. “He’s not a guy who, right when he walks in the door, everybody stands up and takes notice.”
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Despite the heavy hitters in the recruiting class—some dual-threat and some pro-style—White earned the highest honor a high school quarterback can receive: Elite 11 MVP.
“Nobody really fell in love with him right off the bat other than maybe [Elite 11 coach] Matt James,” Elite 11 coach and Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth said. “Then when you got to know him, you started to really want to understand how he sees the game. He’s a real football junkie, kind of like Washington’s Jake Browning in that regard.”
White ended the 2014 recruiting cycle as a 3-star prospect but earned MVP honors in the Under Armour All-America Game. Don’t let the accolades fool you. White was an underdog throughout the process.
“He is a pragmatic overachiever,” said St. Thomas Aquinas head coach Roger Harriott, White’s high school coach while at University School of Nova Southeastern. “He is fueled by adverse challenges and makes the most out of opportunities without question or hesitation. His character portrays gratitude, patience and humility with tremendous confidence and enthusiasm.”
That patience, confidence and trust in himself allowed White to go about his business as a prospect without the fanfare of some of the other players in his class.
“He was highly recruited…but late,” Roth said. “I never felt like he was a big-time guy. I felt like he was always an outsider—even within the Elite 11 community. It was always like, ‘Who’s that 6’0″ guy who can spin the ball nice?’ But after you see him, it was like, ‘Whoa, you have to pay attention to this guy.'”
It took a while for him to get that attention at the college level, and it wasn’t easy for White to crack the starting lineup at Auburn.
He replaced Jeremy Johnson for Game 4 against Mississippi State in 2015 after Johnson struggled out of the gate. It was a knee-jerk reaction that Malzahn had to make after Johnson’s confidence dissolved.
“Last year, he played when he probably shouldn’t have played, but that’s just his competitive fire,” Malzahn said in quotes emailed by Auburn.
That’s not a stretch.
Not only was White thrown into the fire a month into a season that, according to the script, was supposed to include a Heisman run for Johnson, but he got banged up in the process. A knee injury suffered in the quadruple-overtime loss to Arkansas relegated him to an on-again, off-again role for the remainder of the season and a quarterback battle in the offseason.
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Johnson stayed to try to win his job back and was joined by Franklin, a dual-threat junior college transfer and co-star of Netflix’s Last Chance U. While Franklin earned the majority of the external publicity due to his sudden stardom and ability to make plays on the ground, White quietly went about his business in the offseason and earned the respect of his team.
It wasn’t without drama, though.
Franklin’s presence, the success Malzahn had with dual-threat quarterbacks Nick Marshall and Cam Newton and a spring game in which White fumbled once had the state of Auburn’s quarterback position in doubt.
“When he was coming out of high school, a lot of people looked at him and thought he might not be the ideal fit for that offense for how we’ve seen that offense run, but he’s really scheme-versatile,” Stumpf said. “He can run a West Coast offense, he’s athletic enough to pull it four or five times per game and keep that threat, and he obviously could have gone to an air raid system and thrown it 50 or 60 times.”
After that spring game, in the press room, White was asked by local reporters if he’d consider transferring if he didn’t win the starting job. His focus remained on Auburn throughout the summer, and he won the job prior to fall camp and entered the season as the “clear-cut” No. 1 quarterback on the depth chart.
“This year I have had all spring and all preseason to prepare to be the starter,” he said. “I think that has been a huge difference as far as timing with receivers and just be able to just go out there and run the plays and not think and being able to lead everybody.”
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Except that he wasn’t.
Despite naming White the starter against Clemson, Malzahn employed a bizarre quarterback rotation with no rhyme or reason in a 19-13 loss.
“Certain quarterbacks are better at certain plays,” Malzahn said after the game. “We’ve been practicing that way for a while. The guys knew what to expect.”
It was also something that those who know White best knew he could handle.
“He’s been through a lot in those three years, and he doesn’t flinch,” Roth said. “I think that’s the curse of some of these guys playing early, because some guys go down a bad road and transfer. And some guys thrive. He’s one of those who thrives.”
When White finally gained the job security he’d been fighting for, the toughness between his ears allowed him to instantly become the leader of the Tigers.
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White isn’t the most mobile quarterback in the world, but he is fast enough to give off the impression of being a threat outside while providing five to 10 runs during a game in critical spots. On Oct. 29 against Ole Miss, White took off on a scramble on 3rd-and-13 with 5:56 to play in the third quarter, lunged for a first down and kept a critical touchdown drive alive.
“That’s like the leader of the team, almost, so when he’s doing things like that, there’s nothing but to feed off that,” defensive back Josh Holsey said, according to Charles Goldberg of AuburnTigers.com. “He’s playing really great right now, and our run game is helping him play even better. It’s great to see him out there sacrificing his body to get those first downs and keep drives going. I was happy to see him do that.”
He’s not flashy, he’s not imposing and nothing about White suggests that he’s a superstar.
But the most efficient passer in the SEC has emerged as a major weapon for an Auburn team that has legitimate College Football Playoff hopes heading into mid-November.
The Tigers have done it in the same way their leader, White, fought his way to the top of the depth chart:
“He’s got that quiet confidence about him,” Stumpf said. “It’s the reason he was able to stick it out at Auburn and succeed.”
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.