Battle for QB1: Between the Lines

Friday, August 16, 2019

Battle for QB1: Between the Lines

There has been virtually no real information coming out of Auburn on the battle for the most important position on the field. As preseason hype ramps up for college football, every perennial powerhouse in the land is being scrutinized. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Who is going to take over for the departed in different positions? 

Auburn isn’t getting a ton of talk nationwide, and it isn’t because Auburn isn’t a powerhouse program. It’s the fact that the info gathered from the spring game months ago is still the only true, unadulterated insight anyone has into the quarterback battle between the two highly touted competitors, Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix. 

Here is a recap of the of the information we all know.

Gatewood is a physical freak, who gets compared to Cam Newton even though he doesn’t like it. The six-foot-five monster finally got on the field in the Music City Bowl game blowout last season and looked the part. Of course, so did absolutely every Auburn player on the field, except he was playing against an abused and bleeding Purdue team by the time he made a SuperCam dive towards the end zone.

Before an injury held him out last year, he looked lost against the Auburn defense, but so did every QB that played on A-Day. This year was quite different. Gatewood was 7 for 10, passing for 123 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first half, a solid stat line, and he did that without being able to show off his best asset, his running ability. 

Nix was 11 for 14 for 155 yards and 2 touchdowns, though he added an interception. However, he had complete command of the offense, pulling the defense offsides twice with one of those becoming a free play for a touchdown. What little we know about Nix’s fall camp is that the interception bug showed up again, even though one of those picks was attributed to his receiver.

Nix isn’t Gatewood’s size, and he may not have the speed, but Bo isn’t a statue in the pocket, and his predecessor, Jarrett Stidham, showed what just a bit of mobility could do in his time on the Plains. 

You’ve read this time and time again, but not many of the popular websites are really reading between the lines. 

First, of course, is the assumption that both players are going to play against Oregon. This has never worked for Auburn or for many teams across the nation. There’s a reason the old adage goes “if you have two quarterbacks, you have none.” This Oregon team isn’t an Arkansas State, a team that will push you just enough to get in good reps but is not quite good enough to put the game in jeopardy. No one has tried this more than Gus Malzahn, and no one has made it look worse. 

Auburn fans are naturally split on whom they believe is going to be the trigger man for the Tigers. While everyone wants to win, there are a lot of people who would like to see Nix be the man simply because of the nostalgia of having a No. 10 named Nix heading the offense.

Everyone agrees that Nix is the better passer, and the true freshman already has the polish of an upperclassman. Surely his father/coach had a lot to do with that. The spring game was very much like watching his father, Pat, in the no-nonsense-do-the-small-things way that won a lot of games for Auburn when dad Pat wore the Orange and Blue.

However, love him as fans might, he has a lot of things working against him that have little to do with his ability. 

First is the obvious: the Gus Malzahn offense has been at its best with a mobile quarterback. Debates run aplenty on this, and I believe that it has more to do with the individual players and their abilities than it does play calling. In the end, it’s not about having a mobile quarterback, but having the right player. Truth is, Gus has had only a few of those, and while they made him look really good, they artificially inflated a lot of opinions, possibly including Gus’ opinion of himself. Remember he’s now declared that he will again be calling plays. If that’s the truth, Nix is in trouble before Auburn even takes the field in Dallas. 

That may not sit well with some fans. But folks have to set their feelings aside and take a really objective look at a few things.

Auburn has tried to go with the field general under Malzahn several times now. It started with his first stint at Auburn, preceding Cam Newton, and continues today. Consider this: only Chris Todd and Jarrett Stidham were successful pocket passers, and both looked severely mediocre in crunch time.

There are a lot of factors to consider with a quarterback, such as the defense he played behind or the weapons around him. Yet, but in the end, the product from Todd to Barrett Trotter to Sean White to Stidham looked almost identical despite the fact that there was a gulf of ability between these guys, ending with Stidham who now looks the part of Tom Brady’s replacement in Foxboro. 

Auburn has had plenty of dual-threat quarterbacks come through the program. Some never saw the field. Unfortunately, some like John Franklin III and Jeremy Johnson did, and the resulting product wasn’t very good. So, it’s not that Auburn needs a dual-threat QB to succeed, especially when Gus calls plays. It has to have the perfect player, and Gus has to call the right plays for that guy, whomever he may be. The question is, can Gus call plays for anything other than the right dual-threat guy? 

Auburn has some great things going for it this season like the offensive line, which is supposed to be among the league’s best with five seniors. Auburn has a group of good backs, and Boobee Whitlow may be a breakout player this season.

However, at some point, Auburn is going to throw the ball. There is receiving depth as the Tigers have Eli Stove and Will Hastings coming back from serious injuries, although Anthony Schwartz had hand surgery and is doubtful for Oregon and Seth Williams was limited this week. Even a guy like Shedrick Jackson, who has yet to see the field, was held out.

In Auburn’s second scrimmage, drops were a serious issue. The quarterbacks apparently played a lot better, but drops got the best of them. On any other team, this wouldn’t be a surprise, considering the number of potential starters that are out. But at Auburn, there’s been a continual lack of development at that position under Kodi Burns. Auburn’s pass catchers looked incredible in the spring game, but their fall practice perfomance is troubling news, especially for Nix. If Gus is truly calling plays, there is little to no need for a field general. Gatewood is just as good at handing off the speed sweep, running the RPO and throwing the occasional play action pass to a wide open receiver. 

One other thing that is a serious strike against Nix is his dad, the very reason he is who he is. As a legacy QB who really wants to be at Auburn, Gus and Co. can roll the dice on Gatewood, knowing that Nix won’t pack his bags.

In today’s college football landscape, the transfer portal is busier than Atlanta’s MARTA at 5:00 PM on a Friday before game day. Switching it up, if Nix were to be named starter and play all twelve games, would Gatewood stay? To answer that, just take a look at Auburn’s recruiting at the QB position versus the current roster. 

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