Auburn QB Race Down to Two

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Auburn QB Race Down to Two

Wednesday evening, head coach Gus Malzahn told Auburn fans during his AMBUSH tour in Dothan, Alabama that he had narrowed the four-man quarterback race down to two players. 

“Joey Gatewood, Bo Nix are really 1, 1A,” Malzahn said. “One of those two guys will be our starting quarterback for our first game. They’ll compete during the summer and during fall camp and we’ll make a decision.”

The news of who would truly compete for the starting job wasn’t unexpected, nor were the two names that were given. A few weeks ago, offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham stated: “The ideal situation is narrowing it down to two guys who we feel like can win it, but at the same time you can never push those things.” He had said shortly before that, that he expected a meeting between coach Malzahn and himself to produce two names following a complete review of the spring practices and scrimmages. The two certainly wanted this quarterback race to be a two man battle in the summer.

It was pretty obvious that the fourth man in the competition, Cord Sandberg, really had no chance to truly compete for the job. Obviously, a lot goes on behind the scenes at practices and in the meeting rooms which may have largely determined just what kind of opportunity Sandberg would have and how he would respond to it. Judging by the lack of dynamic play calling during the spring game with Sandberg at the helm, it was clear that Sandberg wasn’t going to be the guy.

Malzahn’s few words on Sandberg, and Malik Willis for that matter, were patent Malzahn-speak following the spring game, saying typical Malzahn-esp things like Sandberg did “some really good things” throughout the spring and Willis “competed well.” Compliments may not have overflowed for Bo Nix and Joey Gatewood, but at least more descriptive language was used in reference to these two that are vying for the job. Sandberg seems like Malzahn’s modern day Neil Caudle: a solid player without the upside to take the job from anyone, but provide stability in the locker room as blue chippers come and go. 

The question looming, other than who will eventually win the job, is what will two-year backup Malik Willis do now?

There were a lot of people rooting for the former three-star recruit. Most fans, especially those that may be a little older, appreciate players who “pay their dues” for the school and expect time to be kind to players like Willis. Willis hasn’t played much, but what he has done had given most fans at least some hope that there was an available option to resurrect the offense that Nick Marshall had commanded. However, there was a much tighter leash on Willis this year in his limited duty, mostly because Auburn wasn’t playing at the pace they had played his freshman year.

Perhaps he hadn’t matured as a player or, perhaps he wasn’t that good to begin with. Either way, Willis can play ball and the question is, will he play ball elsewhere? Today’s game is not like yesteryear’s. Patience is not rewarded in modern football and there is no such thing as “paying your dues.” At this point, Auburn fans can’t be upset if Willis packs his bags to find a spot somewhere else. Everyone else is doing it. 

Joey Gatewood sat behind Willis and now-NFL player Jarrett Stidham. It was easy, especially after last year’s spring game, to see yet another big star bust like Woody Barrett. Gatewood looked completely lost in the spring game and disappeared all season, mostly due to a hand injury. However, his few moments in the Music City Bowl outshined the record performance of Auburn’s first team offense and left fans salivating at the possibilities. The comparisons and possibilities of a Gatewood-led offense have been covered ad nauseum. Gatewood completed 7-of-10 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game and he did that without having to use his greatest possible weapon: his legs. 

Bo Nix is probably the most decorated Alabama high school player in history and earned the rare Five-Star mantel his senior year. He has the pedigree in spades being a coaches son, whose father is an Auburn legend who “paid his dues” and his remembered for “Nix-to-Sanders” and a terrific 1994 season as the starter. Fans hoped to see Nix show at least some pizzazz in the spring game, although no one really expected him to show out. Sure, he threw an interception, but he had a veteran presence and did much more than just hang on with wide eyes. He was exploiting Auburn’s vaunted defense, even if it was a second unit. 

Five years ago, the idea of freshman starting at quarterback for any school in the SEC seemed like folly. It is quickly becoming the norm for a conference who brings in blue chip recruits in every class at almost every school in the conference. The question now becomes, can Auburn do what Georgia and Alabama have done and be successful? If they are, what will that offense look like?

To me, Gatewood has a fair edge because of Auburn’s struggles to effectively run the ball. To be effective in the SEC at the top level, running the ball when a team needs it is paramount, but running the ball when a team wants to is even more important. Auburn couldn’t do that last year and likely can’t do that this year in single back sets. While Nix can run, Gatewood was built to run and that ability to stretch defenses with the zone read will drastically change Auburn’s run game. Still, there is no denying what kind of field general Nix can be, but it may take at least half a season for Nix to be that man. 

Perhaps the most important part of this has less to do with which of these players starts but the effect of having a young quarterback for a coach in a very important year off the field. Coach Malzahn enters his most important year of his Auburn tenure and he has burned all of the play cards he can but one. Those cards are the same ones every struggling coach plays. He has shifted blame for offensive woes using who calls those plays as an excuse. He has fixed the defensive woes that plagued his first three teams. He has now hired a new offensive coordinator and made it clear of who makes the offensive decisions. While most would say that Malzahn has no other cards to play, the one he has left is typically the last resort: using a young quarterback with a lot of potential as a bargaining chip. 

With the rise of young quarterbacks playing, struggling coaches have thrust these young guys into the limelight faster than they probably should and usually over more stable players that are waiting on the sidelines. They do this so the player can either excel and the coach can claim credit or they can struggle and the coach and use their potential as leverage for one more year.

In other words, Malik Willis could be a guaranteed eight win guy with a little upside, but Nix and Gatewood could be a 6-to-10 win combo. One would almost surely cost Malzahn a job while the other two could buy even more time despite a possible worse year. While there is little doubt that Nix and Gatewood have the greater upside, not using Willis is a great hedge bet for Malzahn and likely the real reason these two will fight it out over the summer. 

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