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