The 1 thing I don't want to see Auburn do with Bo Nix as the starting QB against Oregon
I didn’t predict it correctly, but I applaud the way that Auburn announced Bo Nix as the starter.
It was a week and a half before the season opener against Oregon, and it wasn’t some off-handed comment that Gus Malzahn made in a post-practice media scrum. It was a definitive statement put out on social media that Nix was “QB1.”
In case you missed it/forgot what it looked like, here was the official announcement last week:
— Auburn Football (@AuburnFootball) August 20, 2019
The most intriguing quarterback battle in college football didn’t end like Ohio State’s did in 2015 with Urban Meyer sending Cardale Jones out for the opening huddle at Virginia Tech instead of J.T. Barrett.
It also didn’t end like Alabama’s last year when Tua Tagovailoa anticlimactically stepped onto the field at Camping World Stadium to take the first snaps against Louisville. In the postgame interview with Maria Taylor, Nick Saban had a viral blowup when asked about the quarterback situation. Neither Tagovailoa nor Jalen Hurts was available to the media after that game, and Alabama players were coached not to talk about them individually.
Nix, on the other hand, was allowed to step up and the podium and address the media the same day that Auburn made the announcement. In case you were wondering, true freshmen are almost never available to the media, especially those who haven’t played a down of college football yet.
But Auburn trusts Nix. Clearly.
I prefaced what I’m about to say because all signs point to Auburn avoiding something I believe would be a mistake.
That is, rolling out anything that resembles a 2-quarterback system Saturday night against Oregon.
The more I think about it, the more I don’t want to see Joey Gatewood play meaningful snaps in this game. That’s not a knock on Gatewood at all. I was legitimately looking forward to seeing his major progress in 2019 and I thought he’d win the starting job.
But Gatewood isn’t the starter. Nix is. And now, I want to see Malzahn truly honor that “QB1” statement.
That means I don’t need to see special packages for Gatewood to provide an offensive spark. What I’d rather see is how Nix bounces back from a mistake and how he can provide an offensive spark.
From listening to offensive-minded coaches talk about the quarterback position, I’m a believer that a quarterback needs to get in rhythm. He needs to be able to get the timing down with his offense. Those reps are crucial to Nix’s development at the college level.
He also needs to feel like he can make a mistake and not be looking over his shoulder. In my opinion, that’s not how quarterbacks succeed.
Everyone was baffled as to why that 2015 Ohio State team, which was the first unanimous preseason No. 1 in Associated Press Top 25 history, struggled throughout that season against inferior competition after winning the 2014 title. As someone who watched every game that team played, I wasn’t baffled. OSU minimized the abilities of Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett by not being decisive about the quarterback situation.
Competition is one thing. It’s a great motivator. But at the college level, the last thing I want in the back of my quarterback’s mind is whether a bad throw or a bad decision is going to force him to lose his job.
Even someone as poised as Jake Fromm struggled at times with the Justin Fields dynamic last year. This excerpt from a recent Sports Illustrated story on the Georgia quarterback was telling:
The Fromms understood the tough position Smart was in. “Put yourself in Kirby’s shoes,” Fromm’s father, Emerson, says. “Kirby had to do what Kirby had to do. He had two good quarterbacks.”
In private, though, those closest to Jake could tell he wasn’t entirely thrilled with the arrangement. He felt that leaving the game intermittently messed with his rhythm, and at a certain point, he thought he had played well enough to end the competition. “He was definitely frustrated at times,” says (Charlie) Woerner, Fromm’s fishing buddy, who’s a tight end on the team. “He felt like he was doing all he could, and Justin would still get reps. (Jake) is a competitor. He wants to be The Guy.”
Nix now has a chance to be The Guy. If you’re The Guy, you get treated like Fromm was as a freshman in 2017. That was when Fromm replaced Jacob Eason after his injury in the 2017 season opener and remained the starter even when Eason returned. Georgia didn’t make special packages for Eason. Fromm was allowed to make mistakes as a true freshman when he led Georgia to an SEC title and national championship berth.
I think Malzahn saw what players like Fromm, Tua Tagovailoa, Jalen Hurts and Trevor Lawrence did when they were empowered as true freshmen. Now, he wants Nix to join that group.
If Gatewood transfers because he isn’t involved in the game plan, sure, that’ll hurt Auburn’s quarterback depth. But the Tigers still have Cord Sandberg, and they have a quarterback committed to the 2020 class. Besides, I’d argue the upside of giving Nix full reps outweighs the downside of losing a backup quarterback who, while talented, is still a redshirt freshman with 1 game of college experience.
That’s not to say Malzahn sees zero value in Gatewood anymore. Of course he does. Injuries happen. If Nix clearly isn’t ready and Auburn struggles mightily in the first few weeks, Gatewood will have a chance to save the day (and Malzahn’s job perhaps). I’m sure Malzahn told that to Gatewood. That’s not some hollow promise, either.
But Malzahn, who took back play-calling duties, was more decisive than ever this offseason. Now is not the time to deviate from that.
Nix is QB1, and if Malzahn is smart, there won’t be a QB1A.
Bo Nix cover photo by Adam Gold Broach.