HOOVER — No roster is ever fully complete in the preseason. Not even the best ones in the country.
There is always some question left to answer. For Auburn, those include who takes the lead at the split end wide receiver position, what kind of depth there is on the offensive line and how departed senior Dontavius Russell will be replaced at defensive tackle.
Gus Malzahn could have answered with any one of those when asked Thursday at SEC media days what, outside of naming a starting quarterback, would be the team’s biggest point of emphasis when it opens preseason camp next month. He didn’t.
“Really,” the seventh-year head coach said, “it’s identify our quarterback. That’s our focus. We’ve got pretty good information. We have competition at every position. But, you know, that’s really our main focus.”
The rest of Auburn’s roster allows it to be. Those other three questions facing the team as far as who plays where on the field seem minor in comparison. Zach Farrar and Marquis McClain make for two solid options at split end, and standout sophomore Seth Williams can play there, too. Depth along the offensive line is a concern, but having five returning senior starters does a lot to kick the can down the road to next season. Surely one (if not all) of Tyrone Truesdell, Daquan Newkirk and Coynis Miller Jr. can take a step forward at defensive tackle.
Quarterback, though, is the only one of those positions where, if all goes according to plan, only one player will play. That player for the Tigers will be either redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood or true freshman Bo Nix, who emerged as the leaders ahead of redshirt freshman Cord Sandberg and junior Malik Willis (who has since transferred to Liberty) in the competition to replace two-year incumbent Jarrett Stidham.
The winner of that competition will be the first freshman quarterback to start a season-opener in Malzahn’s career as a head coach.
But he and his staff, namely first-year offensive coordinator quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham, still have to determine who that player will be. And there is no set timetable for when that will happen or deadline by which they definitely want to make their final decision.
“I really don’t have any kind of goal or anything. We’re just going to go with it. We’ve got a good plan to evaluate our quarterbacks and put them in as many situations as possible,” Malzahn said.
“When it’s time, usually what happens is that the whole team usually knows it, you know? So, whenever that time happens, we’re going to name a starting quarterback. I hope that is earlier rather than later, but I’m not going to try to push it. I’m just going to let it happen.”
Auburn does, though, want to name just one — asked specifically if both quarterbacks would play Aug. 31 against Oregon or if he’s open to trying a two quarterback system, Malzahn said “I’m open to whatever gives us the best chance of winning, but we would like to have a starter and a guy you’d hang your hat on.”
If past fall quarterback battles are any indication, who that starter will be should be announced sometime between two and three weeks into preseason camp. The latest Malzahn has named a starting quarterback came in 2016, when he waited until Aug. 25 to hand Sean White the keys to the offense (and played all three quarterbacks against Clemson anyway). Nick Marshall was named the starter on Aug. 17, 2013; and Stidham on Aug. 14, 2017.
This battle is different, though — while White started six games in 2015, Marshall shined at junior college and Stidham played 10 games as a freshman at Baylor, Gatewood and Nix enter the 2019 season with almost zero college experience between them. The former broke his thumb last fall and wound up quarterbacking one drive all season, and that was in the fourth quarter of the Music City Bowl. The latter is a five-star program legacy and reigning Alabama Mr. Football, but he’s still a rookie.
It’s a good thing Auburn has very few questions to answer outside of that position, because one of those quarterbacks is going to be thrown straight into the fire — Oregon should be a top-15 team, the game is in prime time at a neutral site at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and ESPN’s “College GameDay” announced Thursday that it will be there.
“I think the guys that are really, really successful have a really good team around them. That goes back to the fact that we’ve got to be really good around them,” Malzahn said. “Both of those guys are real refreshing to be around with how eager they are, how hungry they are, wanting to win the position, wanting to learn, wanting to win their teammates over. So I think the better we can be around them, the more successful they’ll be.”
There are reasons to like both quarterbacks for the job. Gatewood is a 6-foot-5, 233-pound dual threat that fits — at least physically — the mold of Cam Newton, and his passing ability is said to have improved significantly since he arrived on campus. Nix’s calling card is as a passer — the son of former Tigers quarterback Patrick Nix owns the state high school records for career total yards (more than 12,000) and touchdowns (161, with 12 through the air) — but “he can flat-out run, too,” Malzahn said.
The Tigers just need to settle on one to lead the offense onto the field against the Ducks. That’s the only point of emphasis Malzahn deemed worthy of bringing up Thursday at SEC media days.
“The good thing is that both of those guys can be a run threat, which I think is important. Both can create when things break down. They showed that in the spring. They both have big-time arms,” Malzahn said. “So the good thing is, I think we have two good options. It’s going to be a fierce battle.
“We’ll figure it out in fall camp. We’ll name a starter and figure which of those two guys gives us the best chance of winning.”