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Does Loss at LSU Expose Gus’ Inability to Develop QB’s?

By on October 29th, 2019 in Football 29 Comments »

Let me start by laying out a few important things before heading down the dark path I am about to take you on: Auburn now has two losses, both to Top Ten teams,one of which was a mere three-point loss to the number one team in the country. Both games were on the road, which is hard for any quarterback, especially a true freshman. Both games were extremely winnable. The Tigers are still No. 11 and have a chance to finish in the Top Ten with two huge games remaining, both inside Jordan-Hare.

If we Auburn fans know anything, it’s frustration, and the only way this season might be more frustrating would be to beat both Georgia and Alabama, which means that winning either the Florida or LSU contests likely would have resulted in a trip to the College Football Playoff. It’s almost destiny that Auburn will do just that. The Tigers certainly could do it, if nothing else, because of the Tigers’ defense.

If you still believe in Gus Malzahn, you might want to quit reading this article. Although some may think he can’t beat either Bama or Georgia, we know he can because he has.

However, the point of this post is the entirety of the Malzahn era in which 2019 is just another chapter of the book on Gus. 

Let’s begin with this weekend’s loss. We are aware that Auburn’s magnificent defense, perhaps the best we’ve ever seen, stifled an LSU offense that was  averaging 50 points per game and, yes, did it against holds, hands to the face, and refs that wouldn’t call either. If the refs throw just one flag, perhaps on the touchdown that gave LSU its first  lead of the game, Auburn wins despite its offensive struggles. But the flag wasn’t thrown, and despite two fourth-down stops, an interception on the goal line, and a muffed punt in the red zone, Auburn lost the game.

A frustrated Marlon Davidson, one of Auburn’s defensive leaders, offered a “no comment” on whether or not Auburn’s offensive ineptitude was responsible for the loss. Auburn fans are  saying that Auburn’s best defense in a generation is being squandered by a bogged-down offense.

But, wait a second. Isn’t offense what Malzahn was brought to Auburn to deliver?

Once again, however, Auburn’s play calling and execution against an elite team was beyond mystifying. Consider that Auburn’s best offensive play of the first half was a delay draw to D. J. Williams meant to run out the clock. Instead, Williams ripped a massive run that put Auburn in position to take the lead going into halftime. But, with seconds left, Bo Nix tossed up a terrible wounded-duck pass that was picked off. While one might applaud his willingness to “take a shot,” the fact is he was running for his life and simply threw the ball across his body in the general direction of a receiver.

Auburn’s best play of the second half was almost identical to the play that ended the half except, somehow, Seth Williams caught the ball. Yes, it was an outstanding catch. Yes, it led to an Auburn touchdown, but that’s not the point. That pass play, with mere minutes left in the game, finally put Bo Nix over 100 yards passing. But otherwise, Auburn’s offense had five false starts, two intentional groundings (neither anywhere close to being arguable), and a snap over and to the right of Nix by center Caleb Kim. Anthony Schwartz had only three touches, just one in the first half. This is another head-scratcher just weeks after Malzahn admitted to not using the speedster enough against Florida.

Bo Nix threw at least three passes out of the back of the end zone. D. J, Williams’s two big runs accounted for almost all of Auburn’s rushing yards. To cap things off, despite the trick plays, the screens, and other typical “Gusist” plays, Malzahn looked to Boobee Whitlow, two weeks out of knee surgery, to provide a spark from the Wildcat.This may be the worst and most irresponsible coaching move since riding an injured Sean White into battle for the duration of the 2015 Georgia game.

Sound familiar? Auburn fans around the country are wondering just how bad QB backup Joey Gatewood can be in order to warrant sticking around under a QB completing 42% of his passes while throwing more INT’s than TD’s in Auburn’s two losses. Certainly, Bo Nix is young, and that these are vital teaching moments for the true freshman that are important to his  future development. 

But, hold up. Let’s break that down for a moment. 

First of all, the age of true freshmen being tossed into the fire, taking their lumps, and developing over time is over. Just look at Auburn’s biggest rivals: Alabama and Georgia have both played for national championships with freshman quarterbacks. Clemson beat Alabama for a national title with a freshman QB.

The list of successful freshman QB’s is long and speaks to the ability of SEC and other premier programs to recruit and develop young talent. Furthermore, they do it so well that backups from those teams have gone on to be successful starters at other programs. Jalen Hurts may win a Heisman at Oklahoma. Justin Fields didn’t win the job in Athens, but he may be a Heisman finalist for Ohio State. Jacob Eason couldn’t take the job back from Jake Fromm at UGA but is now starting in Seattle for Washington and finding a lot of success.

That brings us to our final point: what is Gus Malzahn doing differently than the rest of these successful programs? Is he recruiting and developing on the same level as his counterparts? 

The answer is emphatically, no, at least on the development front. His innovative, fast-paced offense brought him to Auburn in 2009 as a coordinator and, then, as head coach in 2013. Since then, Auburn has had three ten-win seasons, all carried on the back of the offense led by transfer QB’s Cam Newton, Nick Marshall, and Jarrett Stidham. (Although the latter two seemed to regress in their second seasons.) Meanwhile, a Malzhan-recruited kid has never won more than eight games in a season.

One thing Auburn and Malzahn have done better than any one else is land freshmen recruits who don’t pan out. But while Barrett Trotter, Jeremy Johnson, and Sean White are easy to point at, the discussion should really be about all of the quarterbacks along who never saw the field in any real capacity under Malzahn: Kiehl Frazier in 2011, Zeke Pike in 2012, Tyler Queen and Jason Smith in 2015, Woody Barrett and John Franklin, III in 2016, and Malik Willis in 2017. While several of these quarterbacks were three stars, the vast majority of them were four- or five-star recruits. None made any impact at Auburn. 

In today’s football, transfers are common, especially among highly-recruited players who don’t win jobs early in their career. This is exacerbated at the QB position as can be seen by the list from Clemson, Alabama, and UGA. The difference is, not only can Auburn not field a top-notch QB or develop them over the course of a career, it can’t even keep them on campus.

Perhaps the most scathing aspect of all this is that these recruits haven’t been able to start at other schools. Woody Barrett was a four-star recruit and the sixth best in the nation in high school when he came to Auburn and sat behind Jarrett Stidham. Queen and Pike wound up changing positions at other schools. Smith played WR at Auburn in a limited capacity. White gave up the game. Johnson has become a punchline. Franklin couldn’t crack the QB spot at FAU and ended up getting NFL work as a corner. Currently, Barrett doesn’t even start for Kent State. 

There can be no legitimate argument that Nix is on the same path as Jake Fromm or Tua Tagovialoa, and the lone point in his favor is that his offensive line hasn’t done its job in either pass or run blocking, even though Auburn is playing an all senior line. The future here is not bright, because it’s unlikely that Malzahn will develop Nix in the offseason, and it’s unlikely that he will have a competent line in front of him to start 2020.

Meanwhile, Auburn’s 2019 running game has struggled mightily against good competition. Many believe Gatewood could give Auburn a chance to run to set up the pass to a good set of receivers. Yet, playing Gatewood during Nix’s struggles was never a thought in the coach’s mind, based on post-game interviews. 

After another dreadful performance by Auburn’s young QB, one has to wonder if Gus can develop a quarterback? Following a second disappointing loss, fans are left with three possibilities: Gus is showing favoritism to Nix, Gus is too bullheaded, or Gus believes that Gatewood has no chance of being any more successful than Nix. Regardless of which it is, all three are on Gus.

29 Comments

  1. DBAU81 says:

    It’s certainly fair to question Gus’s ability to develop QB’s. His track record contains more misses than hits. But it’s WAY premature to pass any judgment on Bo Nix based on his performances at Florida and LSU. True freshman QB’s who come in and set the world on fire are the exception, not the rule. Having said that, I share your concern about where Bo’s career may go from here under Gus, especially since we’ll be breaking in an entirely new offensive line in 2020. After six and a half seasons, it’s fair to say that we’ve seen just about everything we’re going to get from Gus Malzahn, for better or worse. At some point, the powers that be will have to make a decision about whether that’s good enough or not.

  2. Jonathon Jonathon says:

    Zach, EXACTLY.
    Gus is a coach that makes his decision with a QB and sticks with it until the very end. More times than not this has proven to be detrimental to the team. I could ramble on but totally agree with everything you’ve already stated. These are self-inflicted, bone-headed choices that sit squarely on Gus. Hand the keys to Steele, pick a new OC and move on. If not that, Do Something!! Anything!!

  3. wpleagle wpleagle says:

    For what it’s worth, if Williams had not stepped out of bounds at the 9 on his 70-yard run, and everything else was the same, Auburn would have won 24 – 23. In my opinion, it was all on Williams as he got too close to the sidelines. Most commentators “graciously” reported that he was pushed out of bounds; I don’t believe that was the case.

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      No doubt. Same with the LSU touchdown that should never have been. But, like I am having to tell people on facebook, this article is NOT about last weekend, it’s about the last six years.

      • wpleagle wpleagle says:

        No argument, just something that no one else has seemed to notice or comment on.

        While an Auburn win wouldn’t have overcome a lot of disquiet for the moment, your point about the 6-year body of work is well taken. However, Auburn (Terry Bowden, Tommy Tuberville, even Pat Dye) has a history of incredible highs and bone-crushing lows. And I, for one, would rather have that than the Georgia “good but never quite gets the crown” since 1981!

      • Orangeblood says:

        For Auburn fans, Gus has underachieved.

        My personal qualm is we don’t have an effective enough complete SEC type passing game. Shenker and Wilson are playmakers.

        Yeah I think the quarterbacks are underdeveloped.

        But there’s a certain onus on these players coming into college to learn and develope in their position themselves.
        Bo is a five-star recruit, and I think he legitimately beat out Gatewood.

        He seems to be playing it to safe, throwing a lot of balls in the dirt, instead of taking the chance to push the ball downfield,,Where freshmen are often criticized for mistakes. If it’s third and long an intercepted deep pass can be as effective as a punt.

        But to categorize Gus’s performance in the last six years is simply to isolate the points you want to make.

        Please name a coach, (who is a legitimate candidate for the Auburn coaching job, ) who has won a national championship as an OC, , SEC championships, or has gotten their team to the SECCG, played in NCG’s, has beaten number one ranked teams, and has beaten Nick Saban twice.

        Pretty good resume, I guess that’s why Auburn upped his pay and contract before Arkansas hired him.

        Personally, I think Mark Stoops is the best candidate for a better SEC job. but he may be happy to stay at Kentucky for 15 years, there’s not as much expectations, as there is in the Plains.

        • Jason Wright says:

          What he said ^^^^ … in spades!

        • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

          The hole in your argument is that Nick Saban has won half of the NCs in that period of time and the same teams have been in the playoffs each and every year (since the CFP came along, only Oregon/FSU/Washington/ND have appeared just once). To say that there aren't better coaches because of the number of them with NCs, etc, is myopic. I'm sorry, that's just the truth.

          Yes, Gus is the only active coach to beat Saban. That's an acknowledgment of how good Saban is, not how good Gus is. If you want to use that argument, you also have to acknowledge his over-all record against our rivals to start with, and maybe even his SEC record, over all.

          I'm not saying to fire Gus. I'm saying to break him of his nepotism and obvious inability to recruit and develop by hiring a legitimate offensive staff.

  4. easyedwin easyedwin says:

    IMHO the question is rhetorical [the answer is YES].
    When a defense is loading the line and daring you to throw, they have stopped your running ability. When you have a qb that grounds the ball [twice] and is not making the throws, the defense is daring you to throw. When you have a qb on the bench who can RUN and throw and you do not insert him into the game, you have insane frustration. Once #1 went to charge onto the field and Gus held his arm out and turned him around back to the bench! What was that?

    IMHO I would start Joey vs Ole Miss and tell him that the first half is his and his only. SHOW ME SOMETHING! After a successful first half, I would keep him in for EVERY offensive play. Then a comparison can be made.

    IMHO.

  5. neonbets says:

    And…your thoughts on Lincoln Riley? Mayfield, Murray, and Hurts–all transfers. I guess he can’t develop them either. Poor Sooners.

    Come on. It’s safe to say that Nix’s entire life has been devoted to quarterbacking. He’s been through every elite training protocols that are available to a young man of his age. His dad played the same position and is a coach. He has had every possible advantage to play the position and then some.

    Yet, in the 6-8 months that Malzahn has had him, he should have been able to override a lifetime of elite level training and coaching to teach him how to be more accurate…and to develop him (whatever that actually means).

    It’s a theory—I’ll give you that.

    Nix is inaccurate, and a half-year with any coach will not change that.

    Malzahn’s problem is that he’s not true to himself. His philosophy is unique because it’s high temp and run-first. His offenses are better with run first QBs. He doesn’t embrace his strength because he doesn’t want to be seen as a gimmick (or system) coach, like Leach at WSU among others.

  6. Sullivan013 Sullivan013 says:

    Anyone check what Mac Jones’ completion percentage was as a freshman? 38%, during garbage time on an undefeated team. Kellen Mond wasn’t much better. Nor were many other current SEC qbs. The college game is a bit of a challenge for just about everyone.

    One of the exceptions? Joe Burrow. He was just as accurate as a Freshman as he is today. Think this a function of coaching development?

    Fault Malzhan all you wish, but completion percentage isn’t likely the proper statistic to quote.

  7. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..I didn’t like that we could not throw a slant pass or a 5 yard hitch consistently against LSU. I don’t think that’s on quarterback development, though. Those passes get thrown in nearly every high school game these days. Quarterbacks don’t get stars from the recruiting services if they can’t make those throws.

    …..I’m not arguing against Zach’s main point, either. We’ve sure had some busts in the last 10 years. But I’d also encourage folks to remember that Florida tried to move Cam to tight end before he left. Nick Marshall was relegated to defensive back at UGA. It could be argued that Malzahn developed those two. It is also worth noting that no less than the New England Patriots snapped Jarrett Stidham up and made him their quarterback of the future.

    …..The real issue is the offensive system being chaotic and inconsistent. I am shocked that an all-senior offensive line gets multiple false starts when it is loud in the stadium. Or that receivers stop in their routes and wait for DBs to undercut or whack them as the ball is arriving. Auburn’s offensive issues go beyond quarterback development (or not…) I think.

  8. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Remember when we used to complain and shake our heads when Lee Ziemba was good for one false start per game? I’d love that level of jumpiness, now!

  9. uglyjoe says:

    Auburn athletics has a problem. It’s the same problem they have had for the forty years that I’ve been associated with the University…..the leadership makes bad decisions and refuses to get out of the way. The 2017 version of this story was a huge payday and a gargantuan buyout for a mediocre football coach. Two years later we have a mediocre football team and a coach that will not go away.

    I mutter to someone everyday that we need a new coach, but that’s just my muttering; I’m not going to directly contribute to this year’s $27MM buyout, and quite frankly, think about the public relations fallout that will come from paying a $27 MM buyout to a coach who will finish the regular season with a probable 9-3 or 8-4 record.

    As much as I do, I really shouldn’t think badly of Gus……I’m sure he is trying to coach as hard as he can, but I truly believe he is in way over his head. He’s not going to admit that, and he’s got a legal contract that entitles him to the majority of a $49MM pot of money….. win, lose or draw. He figuratively hit the lotto…..you almost have to feel good for him.

    Fact is, we are locked into Coach Malzahn for the foreseeable future. I don’t know the step-down levels of his buyout, but my guess would be that he is here for a few more years. This year is more or less in the books. I don’t think next year is going to be as good due to attrition, but I still don’t see a buyout. Maybe 2021 is the year, one way or another.

    • neonbets says:

      That’s a great comment, Ugly Joe. Auburn Athletics is dysfunctional, and Malzahn is in over his head. And, a buyout is repugnant because it just perpetuates more of the same nonsense from the past 40 years.

      On Gus, Zach wrote an insightful article a while back about Gus going with a Freshman to provide cover for his inevitable shortcomings. In other words, Gus would excuse himself with– ‘It’s not me–it’s just growing pains of a Freshman QB’. Of course, I thought it was a ridiculous take at the time. I even claimed Zach had ‘Malzahn Derangement Syndrome’. Unfortunately, it appears I’m the one who was deranged.

      No, I don’t believe Gus or any other coach could take Nix and correct his accuracy problems in such a short time. But, Gus is in over his head and on that I think we can all agree.

      On a brighter note, if Auburn can hold it together — recruiting looks pretty impressive this year.

      • friedca friedca says:

        These two comments are absolutely absurd. It is time to step away from the the tv/computer and really evaluate what you think of Auburn athletics. Auburn athletics has never been better. Period. End of Discussion. Brief rundown of achievements over past year

        2018-2019 Men’s Basketball – SEC Champs/Final Four Appearance
        2018 Men’s Golf – SEC Champs
        2018 Equestrian – National Champs
        2019 Baseball – College World Series Appearance

        Now on to Football. Yes we are a two lose team in what could have been winnable games. They were also on the road and to the current #1 and #6 teams. I agree, Gus is bullheaded as hell when it comes to sitting a starting QB. But any other conference in the country and we are a number 1/2 team. We just so happen to be in a conference that has consistently good teams in LSU and Georgia, and teams that are returning to prominence like Florida.

        Now on to the elephant in the room and the real reason Auburn fans are “woe is me” every season. Alabama is experiencing a consistent level of success that no program is matching. No other coach in college football today has his process down more than Nick Saban. Because of this the fanbase has developed this arms race mentality to beat him. They think that paying all this money to someone new is going to magically come in and start beating Saban and company. Who though? Correct me if I’m wrong but Malzahn has 3 wins over Saban. No other coach can claim that (Dabo is close). Who is going to want to come recruit against him? Malzahn has done a pretty damn good job recruiting (QBs are admittedly questionable). But more importantly, who wants to come deal with us? The Auburn fanbase who wants to dismiss the entire team every time we lose. Saban will leave someday, there is no need to empty the coffers to obtain short term success. Auburn Athletics is as healthy as it has ever been.

  10. TCK says:

    Here is the thing…”if you always do what you have always done….you will always get what you always have got”…the root cause of Auburns offensive woes is the offensive line, pure and simple. Gus cannot recruit offensive linemen….we have had a suspect front o-line since his tenure began. Why would we expect anything different from last year? We have the same o-line, who cannot pass protect or open running lanes for backs…..

  11. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    I’ve read a lot of comments on this article on social media. People say its development. People say offensive linemen. People say play calling. People say freshman qb.

    And all I can say is, why is it any of these things that have plagued malzahn since 2014?

    Blame whatever reason you like, but each and every one is an indictment on a coach being in over his head and not one of them is excusable.

  12. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    Let le expound a bit.

    Weve never had depth at offensive line. Never.

    Following Reese Dismukes, i dont believe weve ever finished the year with the same center we started the season with. Why?

    The QB thing is an fact that cant be argued.

    Playcalling? Against LSU, the announcers had stats and diagrams on how Auburn doesnt use the center of the field throwing the ball.

    What about SEC caliber running back depth? Weve been fortunate to have some good ones but the last few years, depth has killed Auburn. Multiple times, Auburn looks like its poised to surge back, but Kam Pettway, or Kerryon Johnson or Boobee Whitlow get hurt and Auburn looks completely lost. Why? No depth.

    Finally, Auburn looks to have competent receivers. But even that has confounded Gus. William’s has plays he gives up on. Schwartz cant get the ball in big games(100% defensive game planning, see point above), and outside of those two, who does Auburn have?

    It’s a totality of issues.

  13. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    And now it is being reported that Gatewood is likely to transfer.

    That would and should be the final nail in the coffin.

  14. uglyjoe says:

    According to al.com now it is official, Gatewood has left the program.

  15. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..And the backup plan is now Cord Sandberg some, and lots of wildcat if Nix gets hurt. Cord Sandberg is a good athlete, but there are questions about his arm strength.

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