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Zach’s Thoughts on A-Day: The Offense

By on April 18th, 2019 in Football 12 Comments »

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.

12 Comments

  1. wpleagle wpleagle says:

    Pretty harsh evaluation of the running backs, especially Williams who is a true freshman.

  2. AUNation AUNation says:

    I agree wpleagle. I was pretty happy with the performance of the RBs and comparing it to what CJ Tolbert did in Spring game mop up duty a couple of years straight is missing the mark. Every educated fan saw CJ running wild last year (and the year before) and still knew in the back of their minds it meant nothing and he’d never be a significant contributor. He was just hitting holes against the second and third string then running in the open field until someone tackled him… he wasn’t breaking tackles or making moves to create yards. What we saw Saturday was something different. I agree that Kam Martin is not our #1 and we need to move on, but Whitlow is ready to shoulder the load and DJ is going to turn some heads as a freshman. That will prove to be a huge recruiting win that we correctly evaluated him early. Also having a mobile QB that can stretch the field, either Bo or Joey, will help the RBs make plays. This offense will have a lot of weapons, but it still lives and dies with the OL.

  3. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll happily eat crow, here.

    But…..we got year of Boobee and while there were some good times, he averaged over 4 yards per carry six times last season and three of those were against non power-five schools. Yes, offensive line is a HUGE part of it, but it’s not all of it.

    I don’t know how this is debatable. The staple of an SEC back is the ability to carry the rock 20 times a game for 100 yards a contest while averaging AT LEAST 4 yards per carry. He had exactly one game of 20+ carries and two 100 yard SEC games.

    Again, happy to be wrong here. Don’t see it. Neither do the vast majority of scouts.

  4. …. Enjoyed reading your thoughts Zach. A lot of good stuff here. But as much as a lot of it is (I think) on target, I too think your a little tough on the running backs. You do though put forth good reason for your opinion, and I appreciate that, but one thing its hard for me to accept. Whenever anyone says, “Most” or “vast majority” it tends to eschew the rest of their argument. It’s easy to say, “everybody or the majority” but how do we really know what the majority of scouts think? Have you seen a poll where they answered the question? May be best just to leave it at, I would be,”happy to be wrong.” Again, enjoyed the piece and not nick picking here, just saying…

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      A fair point. Something that I will take into consideration from now on.

      Let me restate, again, that it’s just my opinion. I was wrong about kerryon. Happy to be wrong here.

  5. neonbets says:

    Good article, Zach.

    Just a heads-up though…there appears to be typo here: he fact remains that Auburn’s offenses since Nick Marshall have been best with NON-Cam Newton-esq players like Sean White

    Somehow, you accidentally stated that Auburn’s offense was running at its best with Sean White at the helm. Obviously, a mistake and I sure don’t mean to be pedantic.

    BTW: Whatever happened to Sean White? Somebody that outstanding should have been picked up and excelling somewhere, no?

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      Well, I’ll say this. Auburns offense set records with Sean white. They may have been rushing records but it’s better than anything we saw with Jeremy Johnson. I truly believe that if pettway, white and Kerryon had remained healthy is 2016, we would speak about that team in a much different light.

    • wpleagle wpleagle says:

      Neon, you’re reading too much into the statement. Zach said it was best with players similar to Sean White, not necessarily White himself.

      • neonbets says:

        Unfortunately, Zach’s reply belies your comment.

        Past that, Zach originally wrote: 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.

        I’m curious: How many QBs do you think Auburn has had since Nick Marshall?

        Back to Zach–how many NON-Cam Newton-esq QBs has Auburn had at the helm since Marshall? At best, I can grant you JJ (even though he was never really a Cam type player). So, at best, all anyone can say is that Auburn’s offense was at it’s best when JJ was not running the offense. And the amusing part about all of this is that nobody disagrees with this statement.

        Instead, look at it this way: It’s not fair to compare QBs to Cam…he was a generational talent. Make the analysis more accessible (or realistic)—who would you rather have behind center for a Gus Malzahn offense: Jalen Hurts or Sean White?

        [I use JH as an example, because we’ve actually seen him play and his style is distinctive. He has real strengths and a significant weakness.]

        For me, the choice is obvious. White was fine against non Power Five opponents. But he wasn’t very good past that. He could not throw the ball down the field and it was terribly frustrating watching the offense when he played. And, it’s ridiculous to say White=Stidham. I’d go Jalen in a second. And JH does not equal JJ either. JJ was not nearly as mobile.

        • neonbets says:

          Now JH or Stidham on a Malzahn offense—that’s a tougher call. I’d still do JH for a Malzahn offense. But this, I admit is a tougher call.

          • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

            I don’t think I have any disagreements with you. I do want to point out that I’m not the one making the comparison of cam to gatewood. That’s something everyone else has done including coaches and players. I agree its unfair to compare anyone to the greatest college football player I’ve ever seen. But it’s going to happen and I just want to point out that people continue to make the comparison and think it equals success and, by proxy, the only way Auburn can exceed to that level is with a player like that.

            I also want to add, quite tongue in cheek, that this is my not so subtle prod at quarterback development at Auburn versus success, especially with the expectations that come with gus and mobile qbs.

  6. […] we took a look at the performance of the Auburn offense during A-Day. Today, we’ll review how the defense performed. While Auburn’s offensive play […]

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