AUBURN — When Gus Malzahn confirmed reports that Joey Gatewood planned to transfer from Auburn last Wednesday, the head coach said it was because the redshirt freshman was “just at a point now where he feels like he wants to be a starting quarterback.”
When Gatewood released his own statement later that day, he said he “wouldn’t take back any part of my journey to this point” but that “it is in the best interest of myself and my family to move forward.”
All of which is completely fair and entirely defendable. The writing was on the wall for Gatewood as soon as true freshman Bo Nix won the starting job during fall camp and played the vast majority of the first-team snaps through Auburn’s first eight games — there’s no use “waiting for your turn” behind a player younger than you are. And by leaving during the season (rather than after), Gatewood gave himself an opportunity to visit other schools on game weekends, which he will reportedly do at Kentucky this weekend.
“I really wish nothing but the best for him,” Nix said following Auburn’s 20-14 win over Ole Miss this past Saturday. “He was put in a bad situation and so, I mean, I don’t know what he’s going through; nobody else on the team knows what he’s going through.”
But Gatewood’s decision, coupled with the struggles Nix had in road losses at Florida and LSU during the weeks prior, reignited what have been among the most common criticisms of Malzahn’s tenure as head coach, ones that have followed him doggedly ever since Nick Marshall left following his final season of eligibility in 2014.
Gus Malzahn isn’t good at managing the quarterback position. Gus Malzahn can’t develop quarterbacks. Quarterbacks get worse the longer they play for Gus Malzahn.
But is any of that fact? Or just myth?
Let’s start with where a lot of that criticism comes from. Auburn has signed 12 quarterbacks since Malzahn returned as head coach in 2013 — Marshall (who came in as an athlete) and Jeremy Johnson in 2013; Sean White in 2014; Jason Smith (athlete) and Tyler Queen in 2015; Woody Barrett and John Franklin III (athlete) in 2016; Jarrett Stidham and Malik Willis (athlete) in 2017; Gatewood and Cord Sandberg in 2018; and Nix in 2019.
Of those 12, seven either transferred (Queen, Barrett, Franklin, Willis and Gatewood), stayed at Auburn but changed positions (Smith, who played wide receiver) or were dismissed from the program (White). Only three (Marshall, Johnson and Stidham) finished their careers with the Tigers, and two of those were transfers. The jury is still out on Sandberg and Nix, who are both freshmen (redshirt and true, respectively).
“I do think when you sit here and stack them all up and look at the guys, it’s not a flattering list,” Woody Wommack, the southeast recruiting analyst for Rivals and Yahoo Sports, said in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser this week.
But the problem might not be their development at Auburn, Wommack continued, but rather Auburn’s evaluations of those players as recruits. “It’s not like he missed on guys and they transferred and starred elsewhere,” he said of Malzahn.
Queen, a former three-star recruit who had elbow surgery shortly after arriving on the Plains, went to Division II West Georgia, where he finished out his career as a tight end. Barrett, a former four-star recruit, went to junior college and then Kent State, where he lost his starting job to Dustin Crum this season. Franklin, a three-star recruit out of East Mississippi Community College (by way of Florida State), moved to wide receiver before leaving Auburn and stuck at that position at Florida Atlantic. Willis, a former three-star recruit, is redshirting at Liberty this year.
One thing all four of those players have in common is that they were each evaluated, recruited and signed by Rhett Lashlee, who was Auburn’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2013-16. He left for the same job at UConn three days after Willis enrolled. Queen, Franklin and Barrett all transferred between March and August of 2017, before Chip Lindsey’s first season calling the plays.
Gatewood’s arc, like Willis’ (who transferred this past spring after falling behind Nix and Gatewood in the quarterback competition), spans all three offensive coordinators Auburn has had during Malzahn’s tenure — he committed during the Lashlee era (Dec. 5, 2015), signed during the Lindsey era (Dec. 20, 2017) and made his college debut a few weeks after Kenny Dillingham was hired (Dec. 28, 2018).
“I think when you have offensive coordinators coming and going or quarterback coaches coming and going, it impacts not only the development, but the evaluations in terms of what you’re looking for,” Wommack said. “Quarterbacks commit earlier than anybody else, and a lot of schools get married to guys, and they sort of stick with them no matter what.”
The same can’t be said of quarterbacks when they arrive at school, though. Coaches don’t get four to five years with them, like they might with an offensive lineman or linebacker. Queen, Willis and Gatewood each spent two seasons on campus. Franklin and Barrett transferred after only one.
That’s not an Auburn problem; that’s just the state of college football at that position right now.
“You usually only play one quarterback in this day and time, and there’s quarterbacks that leave and all that,” Malzahn said Wednesday. “Strategically, you’ve got to be prepared for that. Each year is different, and I think you see that more and more each year. You just got to be prepared.”
So, Malzahn’s Tigers could stand to do a better job evaluating quarterbacks at the high school level and finding the right fits. They currently have two committed to future classes: three-star Chayil Garnett in 2020 and four-star Aaron McLaughlin in 2021. But a lot can change between now and 2021, and the same problems will still exist — Garnett could have to wait behind Nix, then McLaughlin behind both, and so on.
As for the quarterbacks who have stuck around? Malzahn and his staffs actually have had success coaching those. That includes his seven seasons at the college level (three as Auburn’s offensive coordinator) before he returned to the Plains as head coach in 2013.
Tulsa’s Paul Smith went from passing for 2,727 yards and 15 touchdowns in 13 games before Malzahn arrived in 2006 to 5,065 yards and 47 touchdowns after he became the offensive coordinator in 2007. Chris Todd completed 55.1% of his passes splitting time with Kodi Burns in 2008, then 60.4% of his passes for 2,612 yards and 22 touchdowns during Malzahn’s first year as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2009. Arkansas State’s Ryan Aplin improved his completion percentage (63.9% to 68%), yards per attempt (7.5 to 8.2) and touchdown total (19 to 24) during the one year Malzahn was the head coach in Jonesboro in 2011.
Four different Auburn quarterbacks have started games in at least two different seasons since 2013. Here’s how they fared:
Auburn, as a whole, was worse in 2014 after winning an SEC championship and going to the national championship game in 2013, but Marshall’s passing numbers rose across the board: He completed 59.4% of his passes for 1,976 yards (8.3 per attempt) and 14 touchdowns in his first year, then 60.8% for 2,532 yards (8.6 per attempt) and 20 touchdowns in his second. Verdict: Improved.
The Montgomery product ascended to the starting job with much fanfare after he thrashed Western Carolina in a spot start and tired defenses at the tail ends of blowouts while backing up Marshall (73.1%, 11 yards per attempt, 9-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio) as a freshman and sophomore. But he struggled leading the first-team offense against higher-level competition as a junior and senior, completing just 59.8% of his passes, averaging 6.7 yards per attempt and posting an 11-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Verdict: Did not improve.
Injuries were a constant for White, and a September 2017 arrest led to his dismissal from the program (and end of his college career), but the former three-star recruit was a serviceable quarterback when he was able to stay on the field. He completed 58% percent of his passes, threw one touchdown to four interceptions and had a 123.2 rating as a redshirt freshman in 2015, then 63.9%, nine touchdowns to three interceptions and a 143.1 rating in 2016. Verdict: Improved.
The Baylor transfer put together one of the best passing seasons in program history in 2017, when he completed 66.5% of his passes, threw for 3,158 yards and averaged 8.5 yards per attempt. But he went into 2018 without the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year, running back Kerryon Johnson, by his side and with four new starters on the offensive line in front of him, and the numbers noticeably dipped to 60.7% completion, 2,794 yards and 7.6 yards per attempt. He did throw the same number of touchdowns (18) in each season, though. Verdict: Did not improve.
That’s a 2-2 mark for Malzahn when it comes to returning quarterbacks playing better in their second seasons, with maybe with an asterisk next to Stidham’s second season given the problems the entire offense had. That could obviously be better. But it is good enough as is to debunk the “Malzahn can’t develop quarterbacks” myth.
As for the current situation, it’s far too early to say what the end results will be. Based on initial reports, it seems Gatewood (a former four-star recruit) could be the first of five quarterbacks who have transferred under Malzahn’s watch to end up at a Power 5 program — along with his visit to quarterback-desperate Kentucky, he recently followed accounts Florida, Florida State, LSU and Mississippi State football on Twitter.
Wommack believes Gatewood “has a chance to be a really good college football player,” even though he will likely have to sit out next season unless he can get a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately.
Nix, on the other hand, has been up and down this season. He has completed 56.5% of his passes for 1,798 yards (7.3 yards per attempt) and thrown 12 touchdown passes to six interceptions. He led two-minute drive and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to beat Oregon in his college debut and lit fire to Mississippi State’s defense three weeks later (16 of 21, 335 yards, three total touchdowns), but he also struggled mightily in Auburn’s two losses, completing just 41.9% of his passes for 151 yards per game and throwing more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (two).
But he’s still a true freshman who has played in only nine career games, and those losses came at The Swamp and Death Valley, which are two of the toughest road environments in the country. And he “never flinched,” Malzahn said — on Saturday, Nix played what the head coach believes is “one of his best games, if not his best game” against Ole Miss, completing 30 of 44 passes for 340 yards (all career-highs) and rushing for a touchdown.
“If you’re holding him to the standard of (Clemson quarterback) Trevor Lawrence or whatever, maybe he’s not that right away. But you’re talking about a once-in-a-generation type talent,” Wommack said. “Bo is a guy who I always thought was just a proven winner and a guy who could kind of rise to the occasion. It’s hard to simulate going from playing in high school to playing in the SEC.
“I still am very confident that he is going to be a successful quarterback.”
If he is, that could go a long way toward quieting the questions about Malzahn’s ability to coach and develop the most important position on the field.