Auburn’s Tuesday night did not go as planned and now the future at quarterback for the Tigers remains uncertain.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Jarrett Stidham decided he would forego his last season of eligibility to declare for the NFL Draft. Just a few hours later, former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant announced via Twitter and Instagram that he would not be transferring to Auburn, but to Missouri.
Stidham seemed almost certain to leave for the draft, so the Tigers turned their focus toward Bryant in hopes that he would be yet another successful transfer quarterback under Gus Malzahn.
But with the two now out of the picture, Malzahn must look for answers elsewhere – whether that be from another transfer or someone already on the roster – in order to have a bounce-back year as promised.
The veteran of the quarterback room will surely be Malik Willis when the 2019 campaign gets under way. Serving as the primary backup for the past two seasons, Willis seems like the most likely heir to the vacant quarterback position, as he is the only one of the roster with any significant game experience. That experience does not carry much weight, though, as he has only thrown 13 passes in his two years at Auburn.
Mostly a threat with his legs, Willis has drawn comparisons to former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall. If Willis becomes the starter, it is likely that Malzahn resorts to a more read-option style like in 2013-14.
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Though not playing this season, the one receiving the most hype is Joey Gatewood. Drawing size comparisons to Cam Newton, Gatewood stands at 6-foot-5 and 238 pounds. His combination of size and athleticism led his high school to the Florida 7A finals. During his senior season, Gatewood passed for 1,468 yards with 12 TD and rushed for 1,100 yards with 16 scores.
Gatewood fits the mold of a quarterback who can have success in a Malzahn offense, but it will be interesting to see if Malzahn turns to a redshirt freshman in a win-or-get-out type of season.
Cord Sandberg is the biggest wildcard out of the current quarterbacks on the roster. Sandberg came out of high school in 2013 as a 4-star Mississippi State signee but decided to forego his football career and play minor league baseball with the Phillies instead.
Sandberg only appeared in one game this season in a blowout win against Alabama State, where he threw for 20 yards and ran for 35. Sandberg was able to keep his redshirt this season, allowing him to still keep his four years of eligibility.
The highly-touted quarterback who has already received a good bit of hype as the possible savior to Auburn’s quarterback woes is 4-star 2019 commit Bo Nix.
Just last week, Nix set the all-time yardage record in the state of Alabama, while also leading his team to 6A State Finals to be played in Jordan-Hare on Friday. Currently ranked as the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback and the No. 46 overall recruit in the 247Sports Composite, Nix will come in as the highest-ranked high school quarterback signee in Malzahn’s tenure at Auburn.
It is unlikely Nix comes in as a true freshman and wins the starting job as Malzahn has always relied heavily on experience for any position battle in the past, but Malzahn has yet to bring in a true freshman with the talent of Nix.
After missing out on Bryant, the Tigers might shift their focus to a quarterback who might fit the typical Malzahn-mold a little better, and that is Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate.
He has not yet officially declared that he is going to transfer, but by most indications, it is looking like Tate will be leaving. Tate catapulted himself on the scene in 2017, rushing for 1,411 yards – including a three 200+ yard performances – and passing for 1,591.
With Kevin Sumlin in 2018, Tate saw an uptick in passing opportunities, but it came with mix results. Tate has thrown 123 more passes than last season for a total of 2,530 yards and 26 touchdowns. Accuracy was an issue for the dual-threat quarterback as he has only completed 56.3 percent of his passes this season.
If Tate does make it official that he is transferring, expect Malzahn to throw everything but the kitchen sink at him.
The almost desperate pursuit of an outside quarterback does not send good signals that Malzahn trusts the current quarterbacks on the roster much, or even for a true freshman like Nix to secure the job.
One thing that is clear is that Auburn has some major question marks going into Malzahn’s biggest season yet and the 2018 season has yet to end. Whether the answer will be a quarterback hiding on the roster or a new face like Nix or Tate, Auburn needs to figure it out, or this might be Malzahn’s last offseason as the head coach of the Auburn Tigers.
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