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Auburn QB Race Down to Two

By on May 2nd, 2019 in Football, News 10 Comments »

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. 


  1. "The question looming, other than who will eventually win the job, is what will two-year backup Malik Willis do now?"
    With the easy transfer rules, he'll transfer before the fourth game of the season.

    • AubTigerman AubTigerman says:

      Maybe Kodi Burns shares with him how things worked out for him in 2010 and convinces Malik to try another position. I suspect (if he were to be a receiver) that his running the ball after the catch could be electric.

  2. neonbets says:

    So Malzahn is choosing between Gatewood or Nix for the purposes of using a young quarterback with a lot of potential as a bargaining chip.

    I don’t know, Zach. This just smacks of Malzahn Derangement Syndrome.

    • WDE7385 WDE7385 says:

      chuckle chuckle chuckle

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      It happens time and time again across the country and in the NFL. How many times have we seen a rookie get called off the bench when EVERYONE knows he will fail, but the coach has no where else to turn? Most of the time, these teams have a more seasoned backup with no upside, but playing that guy doesn't buy them any time. Throwing that rookie sensation out there buys four or five games.

      I guess I am asking this: Auburn goes 8-5 with Willis who goes, say 15 TDs and 10 INTs with 800 yards rushing and 10 TDs? What happens? He gets destroyed because he didn't develop a three year player.

      Now, say that the numbers are exactly the same, but it's Gatewood or Nix. He gets a FREE PASS because of the youth of that player and the benefit of the doubt that NEXT YEAR they will have "learned the offense." He “won’t make the same mistakes” but, boy, that production for a young player is incredible! Think of what he will be in TWO years under Malzahn!

      Tell me I'm wrong.

      • WDE7385 WDE7385 says:

        First, I’ll say up front. I am not on the “Gus Bus”
        However, give the man his due. He did have several notable achievements in his high school career, at Arkansas and his early years at Auburn. Gus was an offensive innovator.
        Now, I see Gus as a prime example of the Peter Principle in action. For all of his achievements and innovations in the past, he has peaked. The world of college football complained about HUNH offense, they argued about HUNH offenses and, now, they have adapted to the HUNH offense. Like all innovations, (remember the wish bone?) the HUNH has been assimilated.
        Generally speaking, everyone runs a HUNH. or variation thereof, offense. Everyone know how to defend against the HUNH. I’ll admit that a well executed RPO is very hard to defend.
        As an OC, Malzahn had the tiger by the tail but, as a HC, not so much.
        As to the current quarterback situation, I hope the new OC is able to help all three of these kids develop their incredible skills further. They deserve it. Auburn deserves it.
        Of course, all of this is just my opinion.

  3. zotus zotus says:

    Zach, it looks from here that ol’ Gus got a little breather this Spring.

    With Auburn’s historic Final Four appearance sucking up a lot of the oxygen and all, the so-called Offensive Football Genius skated right past “A Day” pretty much under the radar. And, we didn’t have to suffer through hearing his usual drivel this year.

    Not much press coverage of his usual “doin’ the old shuck ‘n jive” going into and coming out of Spring practice drills. Thank God for that.

    Not to say that ol’ Gus has missed out on the scrutiny.

    Recently Michael Lombardi had this to say: “That offense at Auburn, I’m not sure what the hell it is,” Lombardi said. “They run power, they run unbalanced… But anyway, that offense, seriously, might be one of the worst offenses in football, so you can’t evaluate a quarterback in it or they can’t train a quarterback, that’s the other thing. (Gus Malzahn) can’t train them.”

    Poor ol’ Gus. Nobody much to appreciate what Gus brings to the table any more. After his #1 enabler Mr. Jay Jacobs, of the University of Florida Jacobses, left town — now poor Gus has been left behind to twist slowly, slowly in the wind.

    And, lo and behold I pick up the fish-wrapper today and Brandon Marcello has an article full of things that Jim Nagy has to say about the so-called Offensive Football Genius’ so-called prolific offense.

    If you’re interested, here’s the link, it’s worth a look:

    P.S. FWIW, it doesn’t look to me like this scrutiny of ol’ Gus is “derangement” in any form. Nope. Ol’ Gus has a body of work to look at and evaluate. And more and more folks are looking at ol’ Gus’ body of work.

    Truth is that ol’ Gus has shown a track record of taking a bunch of football players in the past, and regardless of their individual talents as football players, ol’ Gus will build you a football team with those players, where the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

    And that track record is not likely to change with ol’ Gus at the controls at Auburn — with or without those two fine young QBs Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix on the roster of the Auburn Football Tigers.

    Thanks for the article Zach. Good job as always. WDE!

    • zotus zotus says:

      I would like to make the following part of the official TET record.

      To address the TET readership for one minute, and to revise and extend my remarks of yesterday that there’s (“… Nobody much to appreciate what Gus brings to the table any more …”) I failed to give mention to the Honorable Gentleman from Arkansas, by way of Oxford, Mississippi.

      So here goes: In this morning’s fish-wrapper it has been reported that ex-Auburn Football Coach Tommy Tuberville had this to say about current Auburn Football Coach Gus Malzahn. And I quote:

      “That’s unfair to say about Gus. He’s had very potent offenses over the years. Jarrett Stidham didn’t improve. Someone has to take the blame for that. Could’ve been Jarrett Stidham. Could’ve been coaching. Could’ve been scheme, but that’s water underneath the bridge. It is important everyone get on the same page for the season.”

      So there you have it folks, I am happy to be able to set the record straight. If you want to get more insight for the Honorable Gentleman from Arkansas on the subject, here’s the link:

      I yield back the rest of my time, Mr. Speaker. WDE!

  4. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..You’re quite right about the sum of the Gus offense often being less than the sum of its parts. However, there are numbers to look at. Gus was at the helm for the 2010 and 2013 offenses, too. Those are number one and two, in the Auburn record books for scoring. That didn’t happen by accident, either.

    …..The worst Gus scoring output was 2011, when Auburn averaged 25.6 points per game. By comparison, in Tommy Tuberville’s 10 seasons, Auburn averaged fewer points than that 6 years. (1999, 2000, 2001, 2006, 2007, 2008.) Two of those seasons were Borges years.

  5. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..I am interested in seeing how next season goes on offense, with a dedicated quarterbacks coach who isn’t also trying to call plays. I also am trying not to write too much into the explosive results against Purdue, and the first team outbursts in the A-Day game. Purdue had one of the slowest Division-I defenses I have ever seen, and got little pass rush to speak of.

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