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A spirit that is not afraid

Will Auburn give Malik Willis a shot at quarterback?

Malik Willis (14) warms up before  Auburn Football vs. Washington on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 in Atlanta, Ga.
Malik Willis (14) warms up before Auburn Football vs. Washington on Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 in Atlanta, Ga.

Auburn isn't receiving the production it expected from Jarrett Stidham.

A preseason second team All-SEC selection, Stidham has fallen well short of those expectations midway through the Tigers' (4-2, 1-2 SEC) regular season. Among SEC starters, Stidham ranks 10th in quarterback rating and has thrown just one touchdown to two interceptions in three conference games.

Frustrations among Auburn faithful skyrocketed last Saturday, as Auburn's offense failed to score a touchdown for the first time since Week 2 of last season in a 23-9 loss to Mississippi State.

Stidham could have changed that, but the redshirt junior was inaccurate throwing downfield, including missing a wide-open Darius Slayton after effective trickeration in the backfield.

Granted, Stidham isn't being given much time in the pocket. Auburn's offensive line allowed three sacks, eight quarterback hurries and a forced fumble against the Bulldogs. Offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey thinks Stidham also might be in his own head.

Jarrett Stidham (8) throws the football during Auburn Football vs. Mississippi State on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, in Starkville, Miss.

"He's probably pressing a little bit, probably not seeing the field like you want," Lindsey said. "Playing quarterback is about getting comfortable, and he's still looking for that. I do think he's capable of improving very quickly."

Stidham's lackluster showings in recent weeks have led to grumblings about whether he's the right man for the starting job, and many Auburn fans are lobbying for a change under center.

READ NEXT: Report card: Grading Auburn's 23-9 loss at Mississippi State 

Most are pointing to sophomore backup Malik Willis as the answer. Lindsey isn't riding that same train of thought.

"Jarrett’s our guy," Lindsey said when asked about possibly starting Willis. "So like I said, we are committed to him and really no other thoughts about that.”

Willis did get a shot in Starkville, entering the game for two plays in the second quarter when Stidham had his helmet knocked off and, by rule, had to take to the sideline. Willis handed to Shaun Shivers for an 8-yard gain, then kept for 2 yards. Lindsey said Willis stayed in for the second play "not just because the helmet came off."

In 2017, Willis rushed for 221 yards and a score in mop-up duty. In two games of action this year, the sophomore from Atlanta has just four carries for 3 yards, including a safety against Alabama State. 

While quick and elusive as a runner, Willis has room for growth as a passer. He threw a 4-yard touchdown to Devan Barrett last season against Arkansas, but struggled mightily in the team's A-Day spring game. After working with the first team for all of spring ball because of Stidham's shoulder injury, Willis completed just 8 of 20 passes for 45 yards.

Malik Willis (14) takes a snap during Auburn's A-Day game on Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Auburn, Ala.

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With Stidham expected to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft at the conclusion of the season, Willis is set to compete with Joey Gatewood, Cord Sandberg and 2019 4-star prospect Bo Nix for the starting role next season.

Auburn will be hoping to get Willis and the backups playing time against Tennessee this Saturday. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. CST inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Nathan King | Sports Editor

Nathan King, senior in journalism with a minor in business, is The Plainsman's sports editor.

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