Auburn will enter the 2019 season with something the program hasn’t seen since 1946 — a true freshman starting at quarterback.
Bo Nix will line up under center on Saturday in a high-profile, high-stakes game against Oregon with a heavy load of pressure on his shoulders. It would be a tough situation for any first-year quarterback. Nix, for his part, doesn’t seem to be shying away from the spotlight of a nationally televised debut or the demands of leading the Tigers through a grueling schedule.
“Some people will view that as tough, but I kind of see it as fun because it is what you prepare for,” he said of the season-opener. “Why else would you play if you can’t play at the highest atmosphere, environment and all that stuff?
“I knew coming to Auburn we were going to have a tough schedule every year, maybe the toughest in the country this year. But the good thing is that I have a really good defense, a really good offensive line and great skill players around me. So long as I just do my job, everything else will take care of itself and I can kind of depend on them a little bit.”
Nix will try to carry on the success he had at the high school level — two state titles with Pinson Valley, more than 12,000 yards of total offense produced and 161 total touchdowns — to the Plains. There’s reason to believe he’ll be able to find early success: namely, that he’s been groomed to be a starting quarterback for a major college program his whole life by his father, former Auburn quarterback Pat Nix. Still, the pressure to produce will be high, with the Tigers looking to rebound from an uninspiring 2018 season.
He will be backed up by redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood, who will likely still play in special packages during the season, most likely in short-yardage or goal-line situations because of his size and ability to run between the tackles.
While Nix is learning on the job, he’ll have to build his confidence behind an offensive line that features five redshirt senior starters — left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho, left guard Marquel Harrell, center Kaleb Kim, right guard Mike Horton and right tackle Jack Driscoll.
That group was underwhelming for much of last season and were a main reason the Tigers didn’t field a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2009. But they did improve as the season progressed and their chemistry as a unit came together. With another offseason, spring practice and fall camp working together, it’s reasonable to expect the group to perform much better in 2019.
The Tigers do have depth issues behind the starting five, though, especially with tackle Austin Troxell out for the year after tearing his ACL. Possibly the best option off the bench at tackle is Bailey Sharp, a 6-5, 305-pound senior who saw limited action in 12 games last season. At guard, the best options if an injury occurs to the starters are Brodarious Hamm and Tashawn Manning, although it’s more likely that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes shuffles the line and moves Kaleb Kim to guard, with sophomore Nick Brahms more than capable of stepping in at center, where he started five games last year.
The offensive line, regardless of who is in the lineup, will need to do a good enough job protecting the pocket and opening running lanes to give Nix the time to build confidence and the running backs a chance to return the Auburn running game to traditional form.
Speaking of running backs, sophomore JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow is in line to be the starter and workhorse in the run game.
Whitlow led the team in rushing last year with 787 yards and six scores on 150 carries while averaging 5.25 yards per carry. His production and opportunities waned the second half of last season, though — he only carried the ball more than 10 times once in the Tigers’ last five games. Auburn’s expected to turn more to the running game this season to take some pressure of Nix, so Whitlow’s carries should increase substantially.
He will be backed up by senior Kam Martin, who has 1,231 yards and five scores on 221 carries (5.57 yards per carry) over his three-year Auburn career. It remains to be seen how big a role Martin will play in the offense this season, especially with talented backups like Shaun Shivers, D.J. Williams and Harold Joiner waiting for their chance.
Both Shivers and Joiner have big-play capability and are expected to play larger roles in the running and passing game this season.
Shivers, who rushed for 371 yards and three scores last year, drew heavy praise from running backs coach Cadillac Williams, who said the sophomore is the one back on the roster who reminded him most of himself.
“I just know, from a standpoint of the guy’s mentality and his work ethic and his goals, it’s Shaun Shivers,” said Williams. “He’s a guy who’s locked in so I am excited to see what he brings. One thing I know is you can’t coach speed and he has a lot of it. I am looking forward to seeing him in some open-field running away from guys.”
Joiner is perhaps the most versatile athlete of the Auburn offense, capable of playing tailback, halfback or receiver.
“He’s very unique from the standpoint that he can do a lot of different things,” said Malzahn. “His versatility gives us a lot of freedom.”
The H-back/tight end position is expected to play a larger role in the offense this year, especially with the addition of Arizona State graduate transfer Jay Jay Wilson, a 6-3, 249-pound athlete who has drawn praise from coaches and players during fall camp for his blocking ability and soft bands.
“He has a skill set that we haven’t had around here in a while,” said H-back/tight end coach Larry Porter. “He’s given us some options and some versatility in our offense that will allow us to do some different things and really and truly showcase our tight end position.”
Wilson will be backed up at H-back by veteran Spencer Nigh, a traditional blocking fullback. Sophomore John Samuel Shenker is expected to see an increase role in the offense at tight end, too.
Outside of quarterback, the receiving corps might be the most difficult position to peg down, primarily because of lingering injuries and lack of production from backups.
The expected leader of the pack, at least production-wise, is talented sophomore Seth Williams, the most-productive receiver returning from last year’s team. He finished with 26 catches for 534 yards and five scores last season, and his 20.54 yards per reception led the SEC and ranked 10th in the nation. With Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton and their 104 receptions last season off the table, Williams could see his targets and production skyrocket this year.
Becoming more mature and developing a greater understanding of his position will help him take the next step forward and become the Tigers’ go-to option, said wide receivers coach Kodi Burns.
“It’s been awesome to kind of watch his development over the last year because I mean, to be honest, when he got here as a freshman, we really just developed him as far as teaching him the offense and the plays — to go out there and make plays,” said Burns. “But now, it’s more so you’re going to become a true, pure route runner and that’s what we’re looking for where he can run every single route and route tree which I think he’s at in this point in his career and to really become a guy for us and I think he’s at that point.”
Complementing Williams will be veteran wide outs Eli Stove and Will Hastings, who missed most of last season while seeing limited minutes in three games and two games, respectively. Both were limited in fall camp, but rejoined the team in preparation of the season-opener. Keeping both Stove and Hastings healthy for the season will likely play a large role in Auburn’s fortunes this season.
When healthy in 2017, Hastings displayed his play-making and route-running ability, making 26 catches for 525 yards and four scores.
“When he goes out there on the field, he doesn’t look like much but he plays like he’s the biggest man on the field,” said Burns of Hastings. “He’s got that confidence and that swagger about him and I think that’s really what separates him from a lot of guys — it’s his ability to go out there and believe he’s the best on the field.”
Stove was productive as a receiver in 2017, too, but he brought some dynamism to the Auburn offense with his ability in the running game, carrying the ball 30 times for 315 yards and two scores. How many speed sweeps Stove gets this season depends on his health as well as how coaches decide to use Anthony Schwartz, who filled that role last season to the tune of 27 carries for 211 yards and five scores. Schwartz also caught 22 passes for 357 yards and two more touchdowns. Schwartz is questionable for the season-opener against Oregon after injuring his hand in a blocking drill early in fall camp and undergoing surgery. He should be back at some point early in the season, though, and will provide top-end speed that will challenge defensive backs in the SEC.
Redshirt freshman Matthew Hill is also expected to be an impact player for the offense. His skill was on display during the A-Day game, where he caught five passes for 128 yards and two scores. Sophomore Shedrick Jackson will see the field some in large part due to his skills as a blocker. Marquis McClain, Sal Cannella and Youngstown State graduate transfer Zach Farrar should also figure into the playing rotation.
Overall, Auburn’s success on offense this season will depend, in large part, on giving Nix an opportunity to develop and staying healthy.