The Auburn football team took to the practice fields this week with the biggest position battle expected at quarterback.
It's basically a four-man competition between Malik Willis, Joey Gatewood, Cord Sandberg and Bo Nix to see who takes over the starting job from Jarrett Stidham, who left early for the NFL.
Willis has the most experience of the four, although none of it was particularly meaningful — he's seen action in 15 games over the past two season, but only attempted 14 passes, while rushing 28 times. And Gatewood and Sandberg saw the field in only one game last year.
In short, inexperience rules the day when looking at what Auburn returns on its depth chart at quarterback.
That inexperience might open the door for true freshman Bo Nix to earn the starting nod. An early enrollee, Nix was rated a five-star and the top dual-threat quarterback coming out of high school at Pinson Valley, which he led to two-straight Class 6A state titles. Even with all his accolades and being mentored by father and Auburn legacy quarterback Pat Nix, Bo Nix's lack of experience on the collegiate level might be the toughest obstacle to overcome.
"The big thing is the experience factor," said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn of playing a freshman quarterback. "A lot of these guys start playing 7-on-7 a lot earlier than they used to. As you said, they have their own QB coaches, so things are a little more accelerated than they used to be at that position. But the big factor is the experience, especially the speed of the game at a conference like ours."
Nix and the other quarterbacks will be rotating in practice and running an offense Malzahn described as a "fairly bland" early in spring practice to give them a chance to get going. Malzahn noted, though, that the offense might expand some under offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham, who came to Auburn from Memphis.
"The thing about Kenny is you always kind of have to stay ahead of things. Kenny will bring some really good, fresh ideas from his time with (Mike) Norvell at Memphis, but really, you won’t see a lot of that. At least the first half of spring, we’re really going to focus on the execution part, the foundation and be able to evaluate quarterbacks," said Malzahn. "I think you have to expand; you have to continue to expand. But at the same time, once you figure out who your starting quarterback is, you’re going to build around his strengths. The good thing is we’ve got four guys and they’re all a little bit different. They’ve all got strengths. Once we figure out who that guy is, we’ll focus on building around his strengths."
The quarterbacks might also go live at some point this spring.
"We have done that in the past," he said. "We’ll see where things go and how guys separate themselves. In the past, if guys hadn’t really separated themselves, you could usually find out in a couple of series going live. I’m not ready to say that now, but it is a possibility.”
The Tigers also hit the field this week without some of its key contributors, including receiver Anthony Schwartz and running back Shaun Shivers, who will both be focusing on track this spring.
"That was part of the plan when we recruited the guys," said Malzahn. "They’re great at that sport, and they’re going to help Auburn be very successful in that sport. That competition will keep them sharp. Both guys had big-time freshman years. Both guys, football is very important to them, too. I know they’ll do everything they can to stay updated. In the summer, they’ll be catching up."
The Tigers will also be without defensive lineman Daquan Newkirk and defensive backs Jordyn Peters and Smoke Monday, as well as wideout Will Hastings.
Defensive lineman Alex Jackson will also be making a position change, moving to the offensive line, most likely at tackle, to help shore up the depth chart.
"He’ll probably start out with tackle, but we’re not ruling out guard," said Malzahn. "Prince Tega [Wanogho] had a similar move about this same time in his career, too, and it worked out pretty well. We’ve got some depth on the defensive line, so this is a chance for us to give a guy an opportunity to show what he can do."
Auburn legend Carnell Williams will make his practice debut as the Tigers' new running backs coach. He'll oversee a depth chart that includes Kam Martin, Boobee Whitlow and newcomer D.J. Williams during the spring, although Harold Joiner will also get some reps at the position.
“I think Cadillac (Williams) will have them competing. He is going to let those guys show what they can do and I want to see them impress their new running back coach. They will have the opportunity to get behind all three lines and we will see what happens.”