Spring practice has started for many teams for the upcoming 2019 College Football season. Although fans and the media have an idea of a team’s identities, the truth is that teams are just starting to create their own. For the Auburn Tigers, they’re looking to rebound from a disappointing 2018 season where they had high hopes paced by an elite offense behind second-year starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Instead, Stidham regressed and was overwhelmed with inefficiencies behind a lackluster performance and a poor offensive line. Now, the Tigers will look for a new leader under center at the quarterback position. This comes at an important time with new offensive coordinator, Kenny Dillingham by way of the Memphis Tigers. Fans are impatient with the process of head coach Gus Malzahn to get Auburn to the same success when he was previously their offensive coordinator from 2009 to 2011.
For Auburn to get back to their highly efficient offensive productivity, the Tigers need to find a reliable starting quarterback. In a Malzahn coached offense, quarterbacks need to have a rare combination of athleticism, dual-threat playmaking ability, and a high IQ. Starting the battle is a two-year backup under Stidham, Malik Willis. Then, enter the top-rated athlete prospect in the 2018 class in redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood. Also, the best dual-threat prospect in the 2019 recruiting class in Bo Nix and former major league baseball prospect Cord Sandberg are all in the race for the starting quarterback position for the Tigers this Fall. Each one of these quarterbacks has the attributes and playmaking ability to win the starting job for Auburn.
Malik Willis – Redshirt Junior
Willis is a player that has the most experience for the Auburn Tigers on and off the field. He also has the most experience in learning and practicing Malzahn’s style of RPO (run-pass-option) offensive philosophy. That is a huge attribute to possess when playing under the complicated offense of Malzahn. In two seasons as a backup, Willis was inserted in more specific short yardage packages that involved more runs. In 2017, Willis accounted for 221 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries. He only threw for 45 yards on six completions on seven attempts. Last season, Willis rushed for 88 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. He only threw for 24 yards on five completions on seven attempts.
Even though he was only used in situational plays, Willis would be a great starting quarterback for many of his favorable attributes. Willis is the fastest and most elusive runner since Nick Marshall started at quarterback for Auburn in 2013 and 2014. He possesses surprising arm strength with very good accuracy. What makes Willis a dangerous playmaker in the RPO is his ability to read the play transpiring and make efficient decisions whether to stay in the pocket, handoff to the running back, or to tuck the ball and run. Willis could also generate a high amount of success in Dillingham’s offense that he used with the Memphis Tigers.
Joey Gatewood – Redshirt Freshman
Like Willis, being compared to Marshall is Gatewood. Gatewood’s size and frame, dual-threat playmaking ability, and strong arm draws a comparison to 2010 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton. Gatewood measures at 6-4, 232 pounds making him, by far, the biggest quarterback of the competitors for the starting position. It isn’t just his size and frame that makes Gatewood a favorite to the eyes of many fans. He possesses great breakaway speed once he gets past the line of scrimmage in either a scramble or a designed play. He also has a strong arm and is accurate on the deep ball. However, his deep throws can hang in the air longer than most would like, thus giving the defensive backs more chance to make a play on it.
Other than Nix, who is a freshman this season, Gatewood has the least amount of experience with Auburn. Last season, Gatewood only had three rushing attempts for 28 yards and one passing attempt. His lack of experience is not too concerning considering he was the top-rated athlete in the 2018 recruiting class. Auburn fans are excited to see a bigger quarterback in terms of stature with a strong arm and more durable runner than Stidham. Only time will tell if Gatewood can be the most talented dual-threat quarterback for Auburn since Newton.
Bo Nix – Freshman
Of the quarterbacks competing for the starting position for the Tigers this season, Nix might be the best passer. Bo is the son of former Auburn Tigers quarterback Patrick Nix from 1992 to 1995. Nix is the number one rated dual-threat quarterback according to many recruiting prognosticators and the third-ranked prospect from the state of Alabama. He is also the top pro-style prospect by other recruiting services. In his senior year at Pinson Valley High School last season, Nix threw for 3,802 yards, 50 touchdowns, and only seven interceptions through 267 completions and 447 attempts. He ultimately won the 2018 Mr. Football award for the state of Alabama.
For the Tigers to go with Nix in his freshman year shows that he has great characteristics that define him as an elite passer and playmaker with his feet. He is an excellent passer that can escape the pocket from pressure very well. He can even deliver the ball well when is on the move or can get the extra yardage on the ground. Nix is generally a more traditional type of quarterback which fits more in Dillingham’s offensive schemes of a fast-paced spread offense but not Malzahn’s RPO style. The ball comes out Nix’s hands awkwardly which might make for more of a difficult ball to catch. Nix also has the least amount of time to learn the playbook and get acclimated to Auburn’s offense. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Nix takes a redshirt for the upcoming season. Also, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he took the starting job either.
Cord Sandberg – Freshman
One of the most interesting prospects in the quarterback position battle is Sandberg. He was the sixth-rated dual-threat quarterback prospect back in the 2013 recruiting class. He originally signed with the Mississippi State Bulldogs before ultimately deciding to play Major League Baseball. After six seasons in the minor leagues, Sandburg enrolled at Auburn and played football in 2018. Sandberg is a highly-athletic and versatile playmaker on the field. The most interesting part about Sandberg is that he possesses a great mix of the top attributes of all the other competitors.
Sandberg has a live and accurate arm like Nix that allows him to stay in the pocket and make deep passes to his receivers. He has great size at 6-2 and is more difficult to bring down with him being more than 200 pounds. He also possesses great running ability to slip out of the pocket and away from pressure. Sandberg has the potential to win the starting position as a dark horse candidate based on consistency.