I have doubts that Zach Calzada is up for the task at hand for Auburn, but I'm as intrigued as ever
Zach Calzada proving me (and others) wrong is the most entertaining outcome for Auburn’s 2022 season.
I can admit that as someone who sold the little amount of stock I had in him early in the 2021 season at A&M. Seeing Calzada step in and be the steadying force Auburn has been lacking at quarterback for most of the post-Cam Newton era would be a fascinating revelation.
That, folks, is the last time you’ll see me put those 2 names in the same sentence.
Based on that lede, you can tell that I think Calzada gets the Week 1 nod for Bryan Harsin’s squad. I came away from SEC Media Days more convinced that Calzada will be QB1, while TJ Finley will be the backup and Oregon transfer Robby Ashford will have some sort of package within the offense. It won’t be a 2-quarterback system, but my belief is that Auburn will attempt to tap into the unknown but enticing element that Ashford will bring as someone who has yet to play a down of FBS football.
So why is Calzada suddenly more interesting than ever after a disappointing season filling in for the injured Haynes King at A&M?
As fate would have it, there are some major implications associated with his play in 2022.
There’s an obvious one that you, reader of this column, should’ve already picked up on. Auburn’s starting quarterback will have a major say in whether Harsin keeps his job.
Paying $15 million to fire a coach after Year 2 doesn’t feel like it’s beyond the realm of possibility for the program who forked over $20.5 million to boot Gus Malzahn. Standing ovations at Auburn basketball games are great. Becoming more personable and active on social media is all well and good. Starting a podcast was a solid move for Harsin’s personal brand, as was having perhaps the most direct opening statement in SEC Media Days history a year after answering just 3 questions in a 35-minute session.
You know what seems to matter more than any of those things at Auburn? Winning football games. I can say I love Harsin’s adjustments while also acknowledging that if he wants to have a Year 3, he probably needs to at least keep his head above water in the SEC West and not finish dead last like media members (myself included) predicted.
Hence, why turning things around at the game’s most important position is vital to Harsin’s future.
There’s really nothing we saw on the field in 2021 that suggests Calzada is ready to be one of the conference’s better quarterbacks. If you think he does have that kind of potential, try making that argument without saying “Alabama” or “Tide.”
Nobody can ever take that Bama performance away from Zach Calzada.pic.twitter.com/1dw6tR6VPu
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) December 13, 2021
The problem? Among 13 qualified SEC quarterbacks in 2021, Calzada was:
- No. 12 in passing yards/game
- No. 12 in yards/attempt
- No. 12 in quarterback rating
- No. 12 in completion percentage
And that’s for somebody who finished with negative rushing yards and 1 score as a runner. His lone game vs. FBS competition in which he completed 60% of his attempts with multiple touchdown passes came against, you guessed it, Alabama.
Do I think that Jimbo Fisher made the necessary schematic adjustments to accommodate Calzada’s skill set once King went down? No. But do I also think that Calzada should’ve looked a bit more comfortable given the weapons that he had and the fact that it was Year 3 in the system? Absolutely.
Let’s also not forget that Calzada was blessed with having the No. 3 defense in America giving him short fields. Barring a stunning development, he won’t be working with that at Auburn.
Calzada will be working with a new play-caller. That’s expected to be Harsin, who also had to hire his 3rd offensive coordinator. Or rather, he had 3 different coaches hold that title during his year and a half on The Plains. If Harsin, who didn’t call plays last year or during most of his time at Boise State, can help groom Calzada, what would that say about Fisher as an offensive mind?
Fisher hasn’t had a top-30 passing game since Jameis Winston. That was also the last time Fisher had a quarterback earn all-conference honors. Year 1 of Winston (2013) was the last time that Fisher had a quarterback finish in the top 25 nationally in quarterback rating.
Why is that significant? In 2021, the SEC had 5 quarterbacks accomplish that feat. If Calzada somehow does take that giant leap forward away from A&M, after missing a good amount of spring ball with his new team because of a shoulder injury, that’d be a tough look for Fisher.
It’d also be a sign to Auburn brass that Harsin may know his way around an offense after all. After watching the Tigers average 17.8 points during that brutal 5-game losing streak to end 2021, one would think that sense of urgency will be there. With 5 home games to kick off 2022, Calzada should get a favorable draw to get settled into his new surroundings. It’s up to him to show that he learned from his shortcomings with, what I’d argue, were favorable surroundings at A&M.
Can Calzada process quicker? Can he ease into a game with some higher-percentage throws early? Can he pick apart a non-Alabama FBS defense?
These questions are all worth asking as we head into a fall camp. I’d expect Harsin to publicly name Calzada his starter a week or 2 away from the opener. He outlined that typically, he names a starter about 10 days ahead of the opener.
That decision could be what determines Harsin’s future. How he manages any sort of off-schedule quarterback issues — either for poor play or an injury — will be critical, too.
Last year, there weren’t many cards for Harsin to play. This year, it seems like he believes that he can win the hand with Calzada.
Time will tell if Harsin is playing against a stacked deck.