With college football progressing toward a regular fall start, it is never too early to begin taking a look at the players whose names you could hear this fall in Jordan-Hare Stadium, over the radio waves, or on your television screens. This week’s preview focuses on quarterback and wide receivers.
One of the biggest positives that Auburn has heading into the fall is that they will retain all but one of its quarterbacks. The only quarterback leaving is Will Appleton, who served primarily as a reserve QB, only seeing action last year against Samford. With only Appleton graduating, three other quarterbacks from the 2019 season will return.
Auburn will also return most of its wide receivers, with only Will Hastings, Sal Canella and Pace Ozmint graduating. With the loss of Hastings, Auburn loses a capable slot receiver who can weave and dominate the middle of the field. Hastings caught 19 passes for 222 yards and one touchdown last season, and while the numbers may not jump off the page as amazing, Hastings had a knack for making his presence felt while on the field.
Canella is another player who Auburn will need to find a replacement for. Canella was a solid red-zone target, with a 6-5 frame that could reach above most defenders' heads to catch the call.
Auburn’s third leaving receiver, Ozmint, was not quite able to find solid playing time, having only played against Samford last season.
For both quarterbacks and receivers, Auburn returns a host of players with experience.
At quarterback, Auburn will return starter Bo Nix, and backups Cord Sandberg and Trey Lindsey. The Tigers also added much-needed depth at the position over the weekend when Bowling Green graduate transfer Grant Loy decided to join the Tigers for his final year of eligibility.
Nix is expected to be the uncontested starter for 2020. As a freshman, Nix threw for 2,542 yards, 16 touchdowns with six interceptions, and rushed for 313 yards and seven touchdowns. He even had three punts to his name.
While he did make mistakes, Nix was able to grow substantially throughout the season. He is not a run-first quarterback, but he is shifty enough to create space. While his elusiveness helped him escape and create yards where there was none, he often left the pocket before he needed to, which caused him some trouble. He is comfortable passing, and as he works with offensive coordinator Chad Morris he should be able to develop into a more proficient passer.
Auburn’s other returning quarterbacks, Sandberg and Lindsey, both saw limited game time last season. While Sandberg is a redshirt sophomore this season, he is the oldest player on the team. He spent six seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies before arriving at Auburn in 2018. He became the official backup last season after the departure of Joey Gatewood. Lindey is a walk-on who has not seen game action.
Loy appeared in all 12 games for Bowling Green last season, starting seven. He completed more than 56 percent of his passes for 1,137 yards and six touchdowns, although he threw 11 interceptions. He was productive in the run game, though, rushing 100 times for 427 yards and four scores.
Auburn will also bring in Chayil Garnett from Lakeland High in Lake Wales, Florida. A highly-rated dual-threat quarterback, Garnett passed for over 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior, but was limited to only eight games as a senior due to injury.
At wide receiver, Auburn returns 14 players and adds four more from the class of 2020 to replace the three leaving. With so much talent and experience, the biggest question will be which players will fit best in which places.
The top three returning receivers are Eli Stove, Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams. Schwartz and Stove are often used in similar scenarios, either in the slot to catch in the middle of the field, or as a runner in the jet sweep. Schwartz caught 41 passes for 440 yards and rushed for an additional 118 yards. Stove caught 37 passes for 321 yards, but only had 57 yards of rushing last season.
Stove’s career got off to a fast start, but like former wide receiver Will Hastings, he has been plagued by a torn ACL that kept him out for most of the 2018 season. Williams has proven to be Nix’s favorite target with 59 receptions for 830 yards. Williams excels in both the deep ball and oftentimes will jump over the defender to catch the ball.
Auburn’s wide receivers will again be coached by former Auburn wide receiver Kodi Burns. As a coach, Burns has worked under Malzahn at Arkansas State and Auburn in 2012 and 2013, before moving on to stints at Samford, Middle Tennessee, Arizona State, and Auburn again in 2016.
The quarterbacks will be under a new ringleader this year. Chad Morris was hired as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after serving two years as the Arkansas head coach. Morris is a 28-year coaching veteran, getting his college coach start in 2010 at Tulsa as the offensive coordinator before moving on to working at Clemson. His first head coaching job was at SMU.
Morris rose much like Malzahn out of the ranks of elite high school coaches. While Malzahn hails from Arkansas and Morris out of Texas, both frequently talked and compared notes.
While Malzahn’s philosophy is run first with play action passes, Morris likes to incorporate a much more in-depth passing game. While at Arkansas, Morris developed a balanced attack of both run and pass. However, with the Razorbacks, Morris did not have the spread skill players he is used to having at his disposal. He will have those players at Auburn.
The skillset Auburn has can be most compared to the players Morris had when he was the offensive coordinator for Clemson.
At Clemson, Morris was able to develop an offense that saw massive increases in both passing and rushing yardage, while coaching up quarterbacks such as Tajh Boyd and recruiting Deshaun Watson.
During his four years at Clemson the Tigers went 41-11, won the 2011 ACC Championship and had four bowl berths, including two Orange Bowl appearances. Under Morris' offense, the Tigers set 127 offensive records and had the top three scoring seasons in school history, as well as four of the top five passing seasons at Clemson.
Auburn’s will not suffer significant losses at either quarterback or wide receiver. This allows for good relationships between both positions to grow — a key component in any offense. With Chad Morris at the helm, and Bo Nix still young and coachable, a rise in the passing offense should be expected. The three returning receivers will add experience and skill.
The Tigers' large group of receivers means that Morris will have plenty of ability to mix around and find who will serve the best roles and allow for solid depth in case of injury.
Come fall, neither of these positions will be of much concern for the Tiger offense. Both have all of the ingredients to create a potent passing game. The key will be their development as summer camps and fall workouts begin to progress.