Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is likely about to make a major mistake. The word from people in the know is that Malzahn is leaning toward awarding the starting quarterback position to redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood over true freshman Bo Nix.
There’s still time before the Aug. 31 opener against Oregon for Nix to overtake Gatewood, but there’s only about two weeks before Malzahn is expected to name the starter. If Gatewood is the choice then Malzahn will be risking his future as Auburn’s coach on the idea that a player who has never been a starting quarterback is going to lead the Tigers to a championship in his first season.
With Nix in control of the offense, Malzahn would have a little more wiggle room with Auburn fans and the people who decide whether he remains employed.
An average season with Gatewood will bring the narrative of “not only are we not getting better, but we’re being mediocre while wasting a once-in-a-generation talent (Nix) on the bench.”
An average season with Nix would provide a very different outlook. “No, we aren’t great, but there’s no doubt we’re going to get better now that our once-in-a-generation quarterback has a year’s worth of experience. We don’t want to change coaches and set back the progress of Nix.”
Let’s start with the bright, flashing light that nobody wants to consider when discussing this decision. Joey Gatewood has never been a starting quarterback. At Bartram Trail High School just south of Jacksonville, Fla., he split time with Riley Smith, who is now a backup quarterback at Boise State. Smith was considered the true quarterback while Gatewood was viewed more as the freak athlete who made the occasional spectacular play.
The inevitable comparison of Gatewood to Cam Newton is because of the similarities in their physical stature. But remember, Newton arrived at Auburn after starring in a perfect season and national championship win at Blinn College.
That is the exact opposite of what Gatewood has accomplished on the field.
That doesn’t mean Gatewood can’t be a good quarterback at the SEC level. The question is whether a “good” Joey Gatewood is going to be enough to save Malzahn’s job. Probably not. So, if Gatewood is the starter he has to be something well beyond good. It’s possible that’s what will happen, but there’s zero room for error.
With Nix it’s a completely different standard. Nobody thinks he’s ready to be Jake Fromm or Tua Tagovailoa in his first time playing college football. But the development and progress of Nix would be enough to keep Auburn fans excited even during a season that might produce a record similar to last year’s 8-5 mark.
Don’t forget how rare it is for Auburn to sign a 5-star high school quarterback. The last 5-star quarterback to sign with Auburn was Jason Campbell in 2000. Even Campbell was ranked as the fifth-best quarterback in his class. Nix and Oklahoma signee Spencer Rattler shared the honor as the top-ranked quarterbacks in the Class of 2019.
Nix is also the son of an Auburn legend. His goal since he was old enough to walk was to play quarterback for Auburn. If Malzahn is viewed as squandering that kind of talent – or if a player of that talent and deep-rooted connections to the university decides to transfer – then Malzahn will not survive without winning a championship with the quarterback he chose.
The idea that Gatewood deserves the first start because he is older and more experienced is a fallacy. Despite being one school class behind, Nix is actually older than Gatewood. As for experience, Nix has been on the field winning championships since first grade. Gatewood’s advantage is he got to watch practice and games while he was injured for most of last season.
There is no way for me to know which quarterback has performed better on and off the field leading into this season. If Malzahn says that player is Gatewood then I trust that is the case.
So, the question of which player gives Auburn the best chance to beat Oregon to open the season may be on the minds of Malzahn and many Auburn fans. But, if I was Malzahn, I’d be asking a different question. I would be wondering which player is going to help me keep my job long enough to get back to the national championship game.
The answer to those two questions may not be the same. How Malzahn decides to proceed with this sticky situation is going to be huge for Auburn this season and beyond. It’s going to be even more critical for Malzahn’s own future as a coach.
Randy Kennedy writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. He has been a daily fixture on the Mobile sports scene since 2002. Follow him on Twitter: @Kennedy_Randy.
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