Auburn football: Can Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo fix Bo Nix?
Based on early offseason predictions, few expect Auburn to compete for the SEC West in Bryan Harsin’s first season on The Plains, but the former Boise State head coach’s quickest path to making some real noise in Year 1 is figuring out what exactly he has in his enigmatic veteran quarterback.
And yes, that “what exactly” is doing a lot of heavy lifting here.
Auburn will kickstart spring practice in a few weeks, with all eyes on former 5-star Bo Nix. It’s safe to say War Eagle fans have a complicated relationship with their Tiger bloodline gunslinger. In 2 seasons as the starter, Nix has lead AU to dramatic wins over Oregon and Alabama. Yet he’s also frustrated folks by mostly teasing those moments of brilliance with far too many surrounding shortcomings, leading many to wonder if his stranglehold on the starting job is tenuous with a new staff.
Nix has all the tools in the belt to be successful. He’s strong, tough, mobile and has a big enough arm. The issue is he hasn’t developed in 2 seasons as a college quarterback. He looks exactly like the guy who was setting records at Pinson Valley High (Ala.), only he’s going up against SEC competition every week.
In former head coach Gus Malzahan’s dink-dink-dink-dink-DUNK offense, Nix struggled with the basic mechanics of the position. His footwork was poor. His delivery was a mess. He routinely bailed from the pocket and relied purely on arm strength. He had way too many throws off his back-foot.
Statistically, Nix regressed as a starter from his freshman to his sophomore season. His touchdown to interception ratio dipped (12:7, 16:6), while his accuracy issues and reliance on short throws remained the same.
Over the course of his career, Nix’s completion percentage has hovered around 58% and his yards per attempt average was a paltry 6.8 in 2020 — ninth among qualifying quarterbacks in the SEC and in the same zip code with Vandy freshman Ken Seals, South Carolina senior Collin Hill and Tennessee veteran Jarrett Guarantano.
Nix was billed to be in an different quarterback hierarchy than those guys. I’m not a quarterback coach, but Nix’s flaws are obvious with too many examples like this:
Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo must do their best Geppetto impersonations this offseason and completely strip down and reconstruct Bo Nix's mechanics. pic.twitter.com/KdhB7Jewhy
— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) March 3, 2021
That’s a layup touchdown that Nix misses because his mechanics are so off. And yet, in the very same game, Nix showcases his pure potential with this wild Houdini score:
Another shot of the Bo Nix TD scramble pic.twitter.com/HRVcFcPPHD
— ESPN 97.7 The Zone (@977ESPN) December 5, 2020
And that’s the problem Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo must solve over the course of this offseason. Can they consistently pry the good out of Nix’s game? Or is he is what he is? And then what does that mean for the Tigers? Should they hand the keys to 4-star freshman Dematrius Davis, leading to a host of other questions for a new staff?
As we sit here today, Harsin and Bobo do not have the answers because the only thing consistent about Nix’s production thus far has been his inconsistencies. Getting the most good from his game means eliminating lots of bad, and the new coaches are going to have to do their best Geppetto impersonations to completely strip down Nix’s mechanics and reconstruct the whole thing.
Thankfully for the Tigers, both Harsin and Bobo strong have track records turning the likes of Jared Zabransky, Kellen Moore, Brett Rypien, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Murray, among others, into upper echelon starters.
Nix has some Zabransky to his game, and his mediocre stat-line thus far compares similarly, too. The former Boise State quarterback put up pedestrian numbers (just 6.4 yards per attempt in 2005) with way too many turnovers (28 interceptions in his first 2 seasons as a starter) before working under Harsin as a senior. With a scheme change and some adjustments to his game, Zabransky suddenly became a top college football quarterback, totaling 29 touchdowns (6 rushing) to just 8 interceptions and leading the Broncos to 13-0 season and a win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.
Can Harsin and Bobo pull off a similar late-career switch with Nix?
Growth isn’t linear and Nix has far more physical traits than Zabransky, giving Harsin and Bobo some extra runway to work around Nix’s deficiencies.
They will absolutely look to tweak Nix’s mechanics this spring, but uplifting the quarterback’s confidence is a must, too. Nix played behind a suspect offensive line in 2020 and never seemed to trust his protection. The Tigers were middle of the pack in sacks allowed (20) but finished 3rd-worst in the SEC in hurries allowed (73), per Pro Football Focus. Fixing the OL won’t solve Nix’s footwork flaws, but it should help the former blue-chip recruit’s confidence and trust in his teammates.
The next step for Auburn’s new staff is to determine where Nix best excels.
Per Pro Football Focus data, Nix was at his best throwing off play action in 2020. He had a 4:0 touchdown to interception ratio on such throws and saw a real uptick in his completion percentage and yards per attempt.
While Nix’s weapons will clearly be worse this fall compared to his first two seasons on the Plains — gone are explosive playmakers Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove — Bobo has a solid record of designing explosive play action offenses without topflight receivers, especially at Georgia. With dynamic tailback Tank Bigsby back for his sophomore campaign, the threat of the run should definitely be there for the Tigers in 2021.
Another way Harsin and Bobo can create more easy and explosive throws for Nix is to actually implement more designed quarterback runs. Nix hasn’t been an overly efficient runner over his career, but he’s flashed the capability (see: LSU and Texas A&M in 2020, Alabama in 2019) and does have 14 rushing touchdowns the last two seasons.
Ultimately, Harsin, Bobo & Co., have a lot to sort out with Nix this offseason, but determining if the third-year quarterback should remain as the Tigers’ entrenched starter is priority No. 1 before they kickoff against Akron on Sept. 4.