Gus Malzahn narrowed the quarterback battle to Joey Gatewood vs. Bo Nix, but does he already have his guy?
And then there were 2.
The race to win Auburn’s starting quarterback job was cut in half Wednesday night, according to Gus Malzahn himself.
While at his AMBUSH Tour stop in Dothan at the Wiregrass Auburn Club, Malzahn said that “Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix are really 1 and 1A … one of those 2 guys will be our starting quarterback for our first game and they’ll compete during the summer and during fall camp and we’ll make a decision.”
If you need to see Malzahn himself actually say those words, here ya go:
Gus Malzahn announces who's the Auburn quarterbacks are. pic.twitter.com/ACGC0LZxmT
— Sam Blum (@SamBlum3) May 1, 2019
We knew there was likely going to be some separation. Malzahn previously hinted he wanted to narrow the battle heading into fall camp because you can’t have 4 players getting equal reps with the No. 1s leading up to the start of the season. Two guys, however, is manageable.
I’ll preface this by saying I was already wrong. I predicted after the spring game that I thought Malik Willis would be the opening day starter, and that Gatewood would get reps. My prediction was that Malzahn was going to roll with the most experienced quarterback in the room to run his offense in this “get back to his roots,” do-or-die season.
Again, I was wrong. Dead wrong.
If I could make another prediction, it’s that Willis will enter the transfer portal by the time I’m finished writing this sentence. Given my inability to predict things, I’ll probably be dead wrong on that, too.
But after seeing this update from Malzahn, I can’t resist yet another prediction about the Auburn quarterback battle — it’ll be Gatewood who gets snap No. 1 against Oregon on Aug. 31.
I’m not sure if that’s considered bold or contrarian given the off-the-charts hype for Nix. And look, I get it. Auburn fans should be excited about a 5-star talent like that, especially when everything we’ve seen and heard from him so far suggests he has a bright future on The Plains. It’s one thing to be a legacy. It’s another thing to be a legacy who can flat out ball, which Nix can.
Bo Nix showing the wow factor pic.twitter.com/lUvUBV6iSz
— Skye Underwood (@SkyeUnderwood) January 3, 2019
(I know coaches hate this, but we saw another play like that in the spring game where Nix was rolling right and he threw a dart across his body. That’s Brett Favre stuff.)
My reservations with Nix being the opening day starter are simple. I think the surrounding circumstances are more favorable for the new and improved Gatewood. That’s the key part in this. If Gatewood didn’t look infinitely better than the early enrollee who struggled to complete a pass this year, this wouldn’t be a conversation. Nix would be the guy and the hype train would be off and running.
I tend to think that if Malzahn can avoid putting all of his eggs in a true freshman’s basket from the jump, he’ll do so. There’s a major challenge with helping a freshman like Nix make reads at the line of scrimmage and recognizing coverages and blitzes, which Malzahn reminded us of during A-Day.
That’s not to say true freshmen can’t succeed immediately. Jalen Hurts and Jake Fromm did that, but neither was the opening day starter. Even Trevor Lawrence, the former No. 1 overall recruit, didn’t start from the jump. Fromm was forced into action after Jacob Eason’s injury while Lawrence and Hurts both outplayed veterans to take over the starting gig.
Maybe that happens with Nix and Gatewood. Perhaps both get reps in the opener and in the second half, Nix makes reads and hits receivers in stride like a 3-year starter.
But if Malzahn does start Nix in the opener, he risks losing his entire quarterback room, which once looked like it was bursting at the seams with talented options. That includes Gatewood, who is no longer making those Cam Newton comparisons look ridiculous. That’s not the case for starting Gatewood because obviously Nix could still get reps and even use the redshirt rule if needed.
There’s something else that needs to be remembered with this battle. When Malzahn had the quarterbacks go live in a scrimmage during spring practice — an extremely rare move at any time of the season — I thought he had an important line in there.
“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.”
“Not good information but great information.” It’s hard to truly get “great information” about Gatewood’s complete game when he can’t make real contact with anyone. The dude is 6-5, 233 pounds. He’s going to make contact with people in an actual game so it was probably super helpful to see him do it in practice.
There’s the counterpoint to Malzahn’s comment that maybe his “great information” was simply seeing how his early enrollee quarterback would handle a pocket collapsing against an SEC defense. Malzahn could have gotten a better feeling if Nix were going to fall into the dual-threat habit of one read and run.
Whatever the case, I honestly believe Malzahn had a favorite in mind after he saw his quarterbacks go live that day. But of course, it makes sense to keep the pressure on all summer and throughout fall camp until he actually has to make a decision.
I think that by eliminating Willis from the conversation, this is trending in the right direction for Gatewood. He has done everything in his power to show that he can be the right person to run Malzahn’s offense. The accuracy, the poise, the decision-making all appear to be there for Gatewood this year.
And now, so is the opportunity.