Mr. CFB/Tony Barnhart Spring Tour: The Big "If" at Auburn
Auburn, AL—In the Spring, every team has a certain number of “Ifs.”
And if those “Ifs” fall your way, you can take turn an average season into a good or very good season.
However, if the “Ifs” don’t fall your way you can turn a good season into something bad. Maybe even very bad.
So, gentle readers, we will submit on this March day that the biggest “If” in the entire Southeastern Conference for 2019 resides in Auburn, Ala.
Specifically: “If Auburn finds a quarterback that Gus Malzahn can trust……….”
Given what Auburn has returning—a veteran offensive line, the top three running backs, a bunch of talented guys on defense who decided to come back to school instead of turning pro—a reliable quarterback appears to be the only thing separating Auburn from being a surprise team in the SEC West.
That would go a long way towards healing the wounds created last season when Auburn finished 8-5 (3-5 SEC) after being projected as a Top 10 team.
It would also help Malzahn, who begins this season under some fire after signing a new 7-year, $49 million contract before the 2018 season.
“This team is hungry and really looking forward to getting started,” Malzahn said just before Spring practice began on March 18.
So what about the quarterback position?
Well, you start with the fact that Jarrett Stidham, who threw for 3,158 yards in 2017 and dropped to 2,794 in 2018 (when his offensive line wasn’t particularly good), decided to pass up his senior season and turn pro. And truth be told, there were a lot of Auburn fans who weren't particularly upset about the decision.
Malzahn was in the running for Kelly Bryant, a graduate transfer from Clemson, but Bryant chose Missouri.
That leaves Malzahn with Malik Willis, who saw spot action as Stidham’s backup last season, a very good athlete in Joey Gatewood, and Cord Sandberg, who has spent the past four years playing minor league baseball.
Early enrollee Bo Nix is the son of former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix is the X-factor in the quarterback race. The younger Nix played for his father and led Pinson Valley High School to pair of Alabama state championships.
Nix has looked good early in spring drills at Auburn. Can it be done? Can you compete for an SEC championship with a true freshman at quarterback? Sure you can. Georgia’s Jake Fromm won an SEC championship and came close to a national championship as a true freshman in 2017.
The key this spring, said Malzahn, is giving all four guys a fair shot at the position. It will, he said, take some creativity.
“We know you really can’t rep four quarterbacks so we’ll do more seven-on-seven stuff and the like. But the best case scenario is that we have some kind of order after spring practice,” said Malzahn. “We’re going to give everybody a fair shot to show what they can do.”
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that a big part of Auburn’s offensive woes last season was the fact that the Tigers couldn’t run the ball when they wanted to. For the first time in nine years Auburn failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher. The offensive line, quite honestly, was not very good and Auburn really missed running back Kerryon Johnson, the SEC offensive player of the year in 2017.
In 2018 Auburn finished 10th in the SEC in rushing (167.46 ypg) and dropped from No. 3 to No. 11 in total offense.
“That (the inability to run the ball) was a big factor, no doubt,” said Malzahn. “But at the same time it was the least experienced offensive line that we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
Malzahn also shook up his staff. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey left (some would say he was nudged) for Kansas and was replaced by 28-year-old Kenny Dillingham from Memphis, which was No. 4 nationally in total offense (523.1 ypg) las season.
Dillingham’s job is to join with co-offensive coordinator Kodi Burns to help Malzahn, who will once more take over calling the plays.
“After the season I made the decision to get back to the thing I love,” said Malzahn. “I wanted to hire someone who had been successful coaching quarterbacks and had helped a play caller. Mike Norvell (Memphis head coach) is a former GA of mine and Kenny did exactly that for him. It was a natural fit.”
Malzahn called the plays in Auburn’s 63-14 win over Purdue in the Music City Bowl.
Now we’ll get to the Auburn defense on another day but here is what you need to know for now: Six key defensive players—including linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson—decided to come back to school instead of turning pro. It was a helluva recruiting job.
As a result Kevin Steele’s defense has a chance to finish in the Top 15 in scoring for the fourth consecutive year. Only three other schools—Clemson, Alabama, and Washington—can make that claim.
"We've got a chance to be pretty good," said Steele.
Last thing before I go. Did I mention that Auburn plays a pretty good schedule? Based on Mark Schlabach’s Way-Too-Early Top 25, this season Auburn will face:
No. 2 Alabama in Auburn
No. 4 Georgia in Auburn
No. 8 Florida in Gainesville
No. 10 Oregon in Arlington, Tex.
No. 11 Texas A&M in College Station
No. 12 LSU in Baton Rouge
“That’s a pretty good schedule,” said Malzahn.
No “Ifs” about that.