Auburn has a surprisingly desirable QB situation, which is great news for Bryan Harsin
As far as replacing formerly successful coaches goes, Bryan Harsin has some advantages that most don’t enjoy when they take over a program.
Most programs that need a new head coach are listlessly looking for direction, have internal strife and/or a depth chart woefully lacking in talent. That’s not the case with Harsin – at least it shouldn’t be.
First, Harsin has been a head coach before. He’s captained the ship at Arkansas State and Boise State. He had a 76-24 overall record, which should be incredibly encouraging for Auburn fans. How many programs have to take a chance on an up-and-coming coordinator when they hire a coach? When that happens, it seems to fail many more times than not.
Whatever internal strife that existed over replacing former coach Gus Malzahn should be over assuming cooler heads prevail. Sure, some boosters might have preferred giving Malzahn another chance, especially with his hefty buyout, but those hard feelings had best be smoothed out if Auburn wishes to move forward and be successful. As for Auburn’s depth chart, it felt the sting of a coaching change last year. The Tigers’ 2021 recruiting finished 40th in the NCAA. Before that, the Tigers respectably hung around the top 10 in recruiting, which means slightly above average in the SEC. That’s at least something to work with.
Harsin has two main challenges moving forward. The long-term concern is that crimson team that also plays its home games in the state. Alabama is still pretty good, but Harsin shouldn’t be judged by his record against Bama — for now. The short-term challenge is overall depth in case one of his key players goes down. There is no player more key to Auburn’s immediate success than quarterback Bo Nix.
It’s unusual to have a starter in place when a new regime takes over. Usually, the quarterback is part of the problem that led to a coaching change in the first place. That’s not the case with Nix.
Nix may not be the elite quarterback his recruiting status promised, but he’s something Harsin can hang his hat on. Nix was named a team captain going into last season. He has played in 24 games, completes about 60%of his passes and averages 3.5-yards per rush. No, he’s not a polished Tom Brady, but he’s shown some flashes that he can turn the course of a game or two – or more.
“Bo’s a hard worker,” Harsin told Paul Finebaum on The SEC Network last week. “That’s the first thing and I love that about any player that I get a chance to coach. He does it in the weight room, he does it on the practice field, he does it in the film room. And that’s really all we ask from every single guy on our team.
“You’re coming in here and you’re willing to work hard at bettering yourself, developing yourself at this craft, especially the quarterback position. You want guys to work hard. I think he’s very tough and he showed that through spring.”
That, however, doesn’t mean Nix can’t be supplanted. Harsin has recently said that LSU transfer TJ Finley is pushing Nix for the starting position.
Ultimately, both players’ performances will determine who plays. However, there’s a philosophical battle for Harsin to consider as well. Staying with Nix is more calming and the safer way to go. Going with Finley is a bit more aggressive. Either approach can build equity — if it works out.
The talk about Finley making a move to become a starter could just be coachspeak. Harsin surely feels that Nix will handle the situation in the right way. There’s unlikely to be any pouting from Nix, who will likely just be motivated by the public questioning of his starting position.
Harsin knows all of this because he has had time to learn about Nix. He has had time to develop an offense that plays to Nix’s strengths instead of an offense that only played to Malzahn’s approach.
All that preparation carries with it some concern. What if something happens to Nix? It’s not an impossible notion. Key players are sidelined early in every season. Remember, Georgia lost Jacob Eason in its 2017 opener — and reached the national championship game with his true freshman backup, Jake Fromm, who beat Auburn in the SEC title game.
If Nix were to be unavailable, things could get interesting. The latest in Auburn has Finley stepping in. The better news would be if he and Nix had the same strengths and weaknesses. That way Harsin could make changes without massively altering his offense.
If not, Harsin has a challenge that he’d just as soon avoid in his first season. Far too many coaches have found their way to the exit door by seeming uncertain at quarterback early in their tenure. Harsin doesn’t need that.
Finley’s alleged ascension is likely coachspeak to motivate Nix, but there is no arguing Finley’s potential. If he grows into his 6-6 body, he could be an ascendant player reminiscent of another former Tiger who continued to grow mentally and psychologically throughout a national championship season.
Now, does Finley have Cam Newton type of ability? Probably not. Newton was considered an elite prospect coming out of high school turned in arguably the greatest single-season in SEC history. Finley doesn’t carry the same penance.
You won’t hear Harsin complain. As far as quarterback situations, a first-year coach in the SEC couldn’t ask for more. Harsin has the leader and team favorite while grooming an up-and-coming quarterback at the same time. If all SEC coaches could be so lucky.