Zach’s Thoughts on A-Day: The Offense
John Reed/USA TODAY Sports
Finding and reading people’s thoughts and opinions on Auburn’s A-Day isn’t hard. Whether it is beat reporters, professional analysts, Twitter users, or just your favorite sports blogger, the information is plentiful and easy to find. I am sure the message boards and pay-wall sites are filled to capacity with everyone’s thoughts, especially on the hot topic, for which everyone seems to have a hot take.
It would have been a lot easier to muddle through if coach Malzahn had offered real thoughts on the spring game or in the practices leading up to A-Day. Spring games are often watered down, both in substance and also time, as the second half features a running clock. Yet, this spring seemed odd because the lack of real substance started at the beginning.
Coach Malzahn is notably tight-lipped about everything, and this year his tin-foil hat was tightly pulled down over his visor after scrimmages. In past years, reporters have had to work hard to coax out information about big plays and performances during scrimmages. What the coach has to say is important to fans, who know that these small glimpses into the program were likely the best source of information to be had.
Gus continues to take every precaution to make sure that opposing teams don’t get any glimpses, and if that means that passionate Auburn fans are left speculating wildly after Auburn’s glorified scrimmage, so be it.
There were some things to take away from Auburn’s spring game other than simply the quarterback battle that will rage on through the summer. Here are some of my thoughts about Saturday’s A-Day game.
Auburn’s defense played well against the run, and while it would be easy to point to some long quarterback keepers that were whistled dead, it is important to remember that the game plan was designed to ignore the QB run and the RPO. What mattered was between the tackles, and Auburn’s defense forced more cracks in the Auburn run game than a lot of people thought were possible.
As it was last year, you can largely ignore the stats put up by D. J. Williams, just as you could last year when walk-on C. J. Tolbert was the MVP. If you wanted to see how Auburn’s run game was really doing, you just needed to watch when Boobee Whitlow and Kam Martin were in the game. They looked just as they did last season: not SEC-caliber, every down backs. While this has never been Martin’s calling, Whitlow was essentially forced into the role last season. The issue is that he took the job by default.
Auburn didn’t have a rusher eclipse the 1,000 yard mark in a season for the first time in a long time. Some of that was caused by the offensive line struggles. Some of it was relying on Jarrett Stidham throwing the ball. Some of it was Whitlow’s injuries. However, most of the reason was Auburn’s not recruiting SEC-quality running backs or keeping them on campus.
Auburn’s offensive line did not push the pile against a very talented first and second string defensive line, and a lot of that was due to play calling on both sides. It probably helped the offensive line that the defense couldn’t blitz on passing downs, but it was hard to create running lanes against a talented group of defenders that simply “stayed home” against the run. While it remains to be seen if Auburn’s run game is actually in trouble, technically speaking the offensive line did look better than at any point last season.
The receivers, despite missing huge pieces in Will Hastings and Anthony Schwartz, did more than “just catch the ball,” which is something they have struggled with under coach Kodi Burns. Under Burns and Malzahn, Auburn’s receivers have been pure talent more than polished players. For the first time, Auburn’s receivers made contested catches without any bonehead drops. Perhaps most importantly, Auburn’s John Samuel Shenker looks like a true inline tight end.
Last, but certainly not least, is the quarterback battle. You can take Cord Sandberg out of the equation. Unless this is a fine job of slow-playing a quarterback, Sandberg wasn’t given any opportunity to separate himself, despite being nearly flawless in his lone appearance against Purdue and again on A-Day. The fact is he never played with Auburn’s first group and was given zero chance to shine in the passing game.
Malik Willis likely lost the job last season when he didn’t show any growth as a player in the 2018 spring game. Fair or not, Willis has had an uphill battle ever since. He was robbed of any chance to showcase himself during games and essentially had to press the issue in this spring game to be noticed.
While Gatewood and Bo Nix were given great play calls and the best players, Willis was not. As a result you could see him forcing plays while Gatewood and Nix seemed effortless in their execution. Yet, Willis DID make plays despite not being given the same opportunity. It appears the coaching staff has moved on from Willis. Could we be surprised? Absolutely. I hope that’s the case. Doesn’t seem like it, however.
The real battle appears to be down to Gatewood and Nix. However, there are some small nuances that make me believe that Bo Nix is going to end up being Auburn’s starter come November.
Yes, Gatewood is physically gifted. The Cam Newton comparisons are everywhere, but pump the brakes on that, ye of short memory. Jeremy Johnson had those comparisons. So did Woody Barrett. So did Jason Smith. Despite what you believe, the fact remains that Auburn’s offenses since Nick Marshall have been best with NON-Cam Newton-esq players like Sean White and Jarrett Stidham. Bo Nix shares a similar play style with them.
The most important thing I learned on A-Day came from listening to the on-camera comments and watching the play calls Gus Malzahn made on the field. The lone bit of trickeration that Malzahn attempted all game was attempting to draw the defense offsides to set up a free play. Gus even called who the pass would go to before the play: Williams up top. He later commented on this on camera, and it was executed perfectly by Bo Nix. It ended in a 38-yard bomb down to the two-yard-line.
The redzone is the toughest place for a young QB to score in this league.but Nix tossed two touchdowns in two plays. After offensive pass interference was called on Eli Stove, robbing Shenker of a TD, Nix was unfazed and tossed the ball for a touchdown to Stove on the next play. He fooled the defense completely and effortlessly tossed a strike in the back of the endzone.
On that drive, Auburn’s offense looked unstoppable. Nix made some great reads on the option. He made some great throws. The most important takeaway was that he was on the same page as his coach and was trusted to make the play. Though it is certainly possible that we, fans, just didn’t get to hear how Malzahn may have been on the same page as the other QBs, the critical call of drawing a defense offsides and having faith in the QB to make the defense pay was done just twice: both with Nix and both worked. That’s why I think Bo Nix ends up being the starter in November.
Check back with us tomorrow when we’ll share our thoughts on the defense’s A-Day performance.