All Quiet On The Plains For Auburn Football
Could this former minor league baseball player be the Auburn starter in 2019? (photo: al.com)
Coach Gus Malzahn isn’t much of a talker. His legendary coach-speak is fairly common knowledge as is his paranoia about being hush-hush about his football team. Auburn is deep into spring practices, and the lid on information, at least to the public, has been tighter than a snare drum.
AL.com has historically been the easiest place to get information on the Auburn football program, and spring football is no exception. Truth be told, spring and fall camps are usually the high water mark for good reading about the ins-and-outs of the Auburn Tigers. In those periods, there is more to write about than any other time during the year because of the emergence of players, position changes, and reports on scrimmages.
That’s not the case this year. In fact, if a reader weren’t actively looking for information and knew that Auburn was having spring practice, he or she may not even know Auburn was on the practice field. On the aforementioned website, there are more articles regarding former Auburn players than there are on spring football. It’s not just websites. Local sports talk radio is having a hard time keeping the conversation going on Auburn football because of the limited flow of information.
Tom Green, the beat reporter for AL.com and the Auburn Tigers, filed a practice report for the first day of spring camp. His article is typical for this time of year, and there is usually one every few days, if not every day. It’s been seven days, and there have been no other reports until just hours ago when one was filed about the second week of practice. However, the article had nothing about what actually has happened on the field, just quotes from the man who is legendary for saying a lot about nothing.
Suffice to say, everyone who wants to know anything about Auburn football (that team across the state especially) has one question: Who will be Auburn’s quarterback when the Tigers tee it up in the fall? Everyone has his opinion on the subject, this writer included. So rather than wait around and discuss what has been said, such as all four are getting reps with all four offensive groups, or whether they will go live, or what-have-you—let’s just talk about the four QB’s.
2018 was an odd year for Malik Willis, starting this time last year. Everyone knew he would never beat out Jarrett Stidham, and at times it seemed like he didn’t want to try. Willis was phenomenal in spot duty as a freshman. If there was a younger clone of Nick Marshall, Willis looked the part. But in last year’s A-Day game, Willis looked unprepared and lost against what became an all-time great Auburn defense. One could almost understand being lost against that nasty D, but Willis didn’t look any better in mop-up duty throughout the 2018 season.
There was a lot of criticism of both player and coach, but what many people missed were the exchanges between the two in his limited action. He was told not to throw the ball. With Auburn’s offensive line, Willis couldn’t run the way he had the year before. Instead of exploiting teams on the edge, he was at times running for his life with defenses not bothering to cover receivers. Willis has the most to lose this spring, but it’s hard to rule him out as the starter in Auburn’s first game.
Joey Gatewood looked incredible in this appearance in the Music City Bowl. He looked every bit like the young Cam Newton that was sold to Auburn fans when he was anointed the future of Auburn football coming out of high school. But, so did Woody Barrett. And look how that worked out.
Like Willis, Gatewood was completely out of his element in Auburn’s spring game. However, that may not have been his fault, simply because the young man barely had his bags unpacked. Gatewood’s style and performance opened a lot of eyes against Purdue and, yes, he did look like Cam Newton. But every Auburn player on the field that day looked like an NFL-caliber player, and Gatewood’s appearance late in the fourth quarter is really meaningless.
But what is meaningful is that Gatewood has repeatedly been praised for his leadership. “You can tell he’s not a freshman anymore,” Malzahn said, and went on to say, “His approach has been completely different than last year, which is to be expected.” Everyone should read what former Auburn linebacker Deshaun Davis said about Gatewood: “Joey Gatewood is going to be a really good quarterback,” Davis said. “I know that’s probably going to be a story, but he’s going to be a good quarterback.”
Most fans have moved on from Willis, and very few believe that Gatewood is the man after all the hype surrounding Bo Nix. Nix has the pedigree and the experience. Usually the discussion of a true freshman leading a program like Auburn’s would spell disaster. Times are a changing, or at least they are in the SEC. True freshman QB’s are having terrific success across the conference, at least across the state lines at Georgia. But Georgia isn’t in the SEC West, and quite frankly, we Auburn fans aren’t lucky enough to see that happen. Do I expect Nix to be a multi-year starter? Yes. Could I expect it this coming season? Yes, but not to begin the year.
Then there’s the guy that no one is talking about: Cord Sandberg. Sandberg took a page out of Russell Wilson’s play book, having played professional football before returning to college football. Like Gatewood, Sandberg got very few chances to do anything for Auburn in 2018. He had three rushing attempts for 38 yards and one passing attempt that went for 22. Sandberg has been at Auburn for a year and still doesn’t have a bio on Auburn’s official website, so it’s pretty hard to expect much of the “old man” on the team. Still, after watching his high school film, writing a scouting report on him, and knowing what maturity can do for a quarterback, he cannot be written off yet. Maturity and trust is something that is invaluable, especially if he can come close to the level of play of the other three guys.
This is a strange mix of quarterbacks for an offense that is at a crossroads. Bo Nix and Cord Sandberg are more like Jarrett Stidham than Nick Marshall, but it seems that Malzahn wants to get away from the Stidham approach. Auburn wants to get back to the success that fans experienced in 2013 and 2014, which gives Willis and Gatewood a huge advantage.
None of this is news. Willis and Gatewood benefit because of their dual-threat nature, but they are as far away from being competent passers as Nix and Sandberg are at becoming competent runners.
The most important aspect for determining which of these four becomes Auburn’s starter is less about the individual and more about who lines up next to or behind them. This happened when Boobee Whitlow did a fine job when he was healthy, and Kam Martin was a great change-of pace-back. Neither are NFL-type runners nor is anyone behind them, which is what Auburn needs if either Nix or Sandberg are expected to start.
So as this writer sees it, this gives the reins to Gatewood and Willis, hence the desire for Auburn to go live during scrimmages. One of these two, if not both, will be Auburn’s starter this season.