Auburn QB Race Down to Two
Todd Van Ernst/ Auburn Athletics
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.” Shortly before that, he said he expected a meeting between coach Malzahn and himself to produce two names after 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 real chance to win the job. Obviously, a lot goes on behind the scenes at practices and in the meeting rooms that may have determined just what kind of opportunity Sandberg would have and how he would respond to it. The lack of dynamic play calling during the spring game with Sandberg at the helm made it clear that he wasn’t going to be the guy.
Malzahn’s few words on Sandberg, and Malik Willis after the spring game were patented Malzahn-speak, typical Malzahn-esq 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 them. Sandberg seems like Malzahn’s modern day Neil Caudle: a solid player without the upside to take the job from anyone but able to 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. He hasn’t played much, but what he did gave fans some hope that there was an available option to resurrect the Nick Marshall offense. However, there was a much tighter leash on Willis this year, mostly because Auburn wasn’t playing at the pace they played his freshman year.
Perhaps he hadn’t matured as a player, perhaps he wasn’t that good to begin with. Either way, Willis can play ball, so the question is, will he go 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.
Joey Gatewood sat behind Willis and NFL draftee 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 outshone the record-setting 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 potential 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 pedigree in spades, being a coach’s son whose father is an Auburn legend that “paid his dues” and is remembered for “Nix-to-Sanders” and a terrific 1994 season as the starter. Fans hoped to see Nix show some pizzazz in the spring game, although no one really expected him to show out. Sure, he threw an interception, but he displayed veteran presence and did much more than just hang on with wide eyes. He exploited Auburn’s vaunted defense, even if it was the 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 that brings in blue chip recruits in every class at almost every school. Can Auburn successfully do what Georgia and Alabama have done? If it does, what will that offense look like?
Malzahn, of course, has his own demons to slay when it comes to recruiting and developing a quarterback.
To me, Gatewood has an edge because of Auburn’s struggles running the ball. To be effective in the SEC at the top level, teams must be able to run the ball when needed, but it’s more important for a team to be able to run the ball when it wants to. Auburn couldn’t do that last year and likely can’t do it this year in single-back sets, partially due to offensive line deficiencies, partially because of not having a dominating running back. Although Nix can run, Gatewood was built to run, and his ability to stretch defenses with the zone read will drastically change Auburn’s run game.
While there is no denying the kind of field general Nix can be, it may take at least half a season for him to be that man.
Perhaps the most important part of this is less which player starts and more the effect of having a young quarterback for a coach who is in a very important year off the field. Coach Malzahn is entering the most important year of his Auburn tenure, and he has burned all but one of his play cards. He blamed offensive woes on the play caller. He fixed the defensive woes that plagued his first three teams. He has hired a new offensive coordinator and made it clear about who makes the offensive decisions. Most would say that Malzahn has no other cards to play, but he has what is typically the last resort: using a young quarterback with a lot of potential as a bargaining chip.
Struggling coaches are probably thrusting young quarterbacks playing early into the limelight faster than they should and usually over more stable players waiting on the sidelines. They do this so the player can either excel and the coach can claim credit, or the player can struggle and the coach can use his potential as leverage for one more year. Some have even gone so far as to predict what might happen with a star player if the coach were to be fired.
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 option would almost surely cost Malzahn his job while the other could buy even more time despite a possibly 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 is likely the real reason Nix and Gatewood will fight it out over the summer.