The departure of Joey Gatewood from the Auburn football team is not a sign that the sky is falling. The reaction to what is now the common occurrence of a backup quarterback transferring to another school has been stunning to watch.
The overreaction is on par with the one about Gatewood ever actually being a big-time college football prospect.
Neither is true. But because some fans somehow convinced themselves of the latter, they now fret that Gatewood’s can’t-miss career has been squandered by Gus Malzahn. The fact is Gatewood never proved to be anything more than a Cam Newton lookalike on the field. That alone shouldn’t make fans think he was actually supposed to be the next Cam Newton.
Gatewood is a physically imposing athlete who never earned the starting quarterback position even in high school. The player he split time with at Bartram Trail High near Jacksonville is now trying to find his way onto the field as a wide receiver at Boise State.
In other words, he was an intriguing project at best. Now, after proving to be someone who would quit on his teammates during the season, he’s gone.
This is not a case of a player deciding to transfer midseason in order to preserve another year of eligibility. There was nothing to gain for Gatewood to leave the Auburn team now. He’s already redshirted and played in more than four games this season, so he will be forced to sit out all of next season regardless of whether he had lived up to his commitment at Auburn or quit.
Auburn fans who wish him well are going above and beyond with their kindness. Those fans are more generous with their praise than me.
This is not a Jalen Hurts situation, where any reasonable person would agree he made the right decision to transfer to Oklahoma after graduating from Alabama and fulfilling his obligation as a great teammate until the season was over.
We will see how this works out for Gatewood starting with the 2021 season. Maybe he’ll be able to win a starting job, something he couldn’t do in high school or at Auburn.
As for Auburn, the transfer of Gatewood ends yet another quarterback saga. Some of those have ended well, but most in recent years have been a disappointment.
Newton arrived at Auburn, won the Heisman Trophy and a national championship all during a 12-month span. Since he left as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, the only thing predictable about the position at Auburn is that it has been unpredictable.
Almost all of the 14 quarterbacks who have signed with Auburn since have fallen into one of two categories: projects who never really had a realistic opportunity to be successful quarterbacks on the college level or transfers.
Take a look at those 14 players: 2011 Kiehl Frazier, 2012 Zeke Pike and Jonathan Wallace, 2013 Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall, 2014 Sean White, 2015 Jason Smith and Tyler Queen, 2016 John Franklin III and Woody Barrett, 2017 Jarrett Stidham and Malik Willis, 2018 Joey Gatewood and 2019 Bo Nix.
That’s four transfers (Marshall, Smith, Franklin and Stidham) and seven players who never really had SEC quarterback credentials.
The three exceptions are Frazier, Johnson and Nix. Frazier was an outstanding small-school quarterback prospect from Arkansas who was thrust into the starting role at Auburn too soon. He never seemed to recover from being so overwhelmed early in his career.
Johnson was Mr. Football in Alabama and the best backup quarterback in the country. Neither of those things mattered when it turned out that the lights were too bright for him as a starter.
That leaves Nix, whose story is mostly still unwritten. There is no denying his talent, which was on display when he led Auburn to a comeback win over Oregon in the season opener and when he threw for a season-high 340 yards against Ole Miss last week. But the weeks since the Oregon game have proven beyond any doubt that Malzahn’s simplistic offense is not ideal for him.
Nix is a good athlete for a quarterback. But he’s not an athlete who just happens to play quarterback. That description fits Marshall, who excelled in Malzahn’s system.
Maybe Malzahn will alter his offense now that he finally has a legitimate five-star quarterback recruit. Maybe Nix will be the last Auburn quarterback to regress under Malzahn.
Or maybe Auburn’s next coach will have the unusual fortune to inherit a franchise quarterback ready to show what he can do in an NFL-style offense.
Randy Kennedy, who has been a leading voice on the Gulf Coast sports scene for 17 years, writes a weekly column for Lagniappe. Follow him on Twitter: @kennedy_randy.
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