I’ll be honest. I’ve been critical of the way Gus Malzahn managed his quarterback situation in years past.

From the inability to maximize Jarrett Stidham’s skill set to the lack of development with Jeremy Johnson, it’s been pretty easy to pile on Malzahn for the way he handled the game’s most important position the past few years.

But with more questions than ever surrounding the position, Malzahn isn’t taking a conventional approach to making what could be a make-or-break decision for his future on The Plains. And I think it makes a ton of sense.

Malzahn has a legitimate 4-quarterback battle on his hands. It’s between junior Malik Willis, redshirt freshmen Cord Sandberg and Joey Gatewood and highly-touted early enrollee Bo Nix.

If Malzahn had it his way and been able to land a graduate transfer like Austin Kendall, there would be even more candidates battling for the right to become Auburn’s next starting quarterback. Perhaps Malzahn will size up his quarterback room in the spring and pull an LSU, though I’m not sure there will be a Joe Burrow-type on the market.

Let’s get back to how Malzahn is managing the 4 quarterbacks, all of whom are getting even reps with the first-teamers. “Battling” is a key verb because as we found out this week, Malzahn had his quarterbacks go live in a scrimmage. Meaning, yeah, they could get hit like any other skill player.

Hearing Malzahn talk about it after the fact said a lot.

“It was good to see them, how they operate the offense, how confident they were, the communication. Like I said, anytime you go live it changes the whole perspective and the approach,” Malzahn said during his latest media availability. “I learned a lot about the approach of the quarterback. How they are going to approach the games being live and everything.

“There wasn’t one thing that stood out, but just overall, it gave us not good information but great information.”

That’s great. No, really.

Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

What does that sound like to me? It sounds like Malzahn got the desired separation he was hoping to see without getting any of his quarterbacks hurt. Oh, and he did so all while creating the closest possible thing to actual game competition. Where there’s, you know, guys tackling quarterbacks and stuff.

To quote Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Clearly, it benefitted Malzahn to see his quarterbacks get punched in the mouth — not literally but probably somewhat close — without waiting until Aug. 31 when Auburn will take on Oregon in a major neutral-site showdown that could play a part in determining his future.

After all, Auburn has 4 guys. If there was a true starter or favorite in Malzahn’s mind, he wouldn’t risk getting them hurt. And while you would certainly never want a player to go down, I’d still support the idea even if it did result in an injury.

This is probably one of the few situations in this era that it would be extremely wise to have quarterbacks go live. He has 3 quarterbacks who haven’t used up a single year of eligibility and another who has 14 career pass attempts. Why not crank up the pressure a little and see how they respond?

Malzahn is plenty familiar with having the pressure cranked up. He’s going to be on every hot-seat list in America, despite the fact that he’s less than a year and a half removed from signing that 7-year, $49 million contract. If Malzahn’s quarterback decision results in a 2-2 start — Auburn has the opener vs. Oregon and then a trip to Texas A&M at the end of September — his seat will be on fire.

And yeah, there are other decisions Malzahn will have to make in the preseason that’ll determine Auburn’s destiny. Figuring out the pecking order in the backfield to avoid another dud season in the ground game will be key.

But it just feels like the quarterback decision is going to make or break Malzahn’s time at Auburn. Of course he was going to try and get as much intel as possible.

You get the sense that Malzahn is going to play by his own rules this year. Between a move like that and the decision to take play-calling duties back after Chip Lindsey’s exit, this is all going to come back to Malzahn. How he handles this situation — publicly and privately — could determine more than just 1 year of Auburn football.

If it works and Auburn makes its second conference title game in 3 years, he’ll be SEC Coach of the Year. If Malzahn’s approach doesn’t yield more production with a first-year starter, he could be out of a job (and collecting that fat buyout check).

But whatever happens this fall, Malzahn isn’t hurting himself by making his quarterbacks actually battle during the spring.