Spring practice begins on March 15th, so it’s, like, imminent. We’ll finally get details trickling out from the Bryan Harsin era after he was hired nearly three months ago to take over for Gus Malzahn.
While the shortcomings of the Malzahn era were numerous and led to his firing, some of the most glaring deficiencies came on the offensive side of the ball, where Gus was supposed to be the Messiah in many ways. Of course, when he was offensive coordinator, and early on in his head coaching tenure, that was true. He was revolutionary, and he had an offense that lent itself to the athletes doing things they were comfortable with doing.
However, he got tight. Maybe it was time, or thinking that he’d been figured out. Whatever the reason for the offensive stagnation, it resulted in a lack of development for the Auburn quarterbacks. Nick Marshall was never going to be a professional quarterback, and that’s evident by him spending time at defensive back in the NFL. Jeremy Johnson seemingly had all the tools to be a pro prospect, but the light never came on when tackling was live. Sean White had his own batch of problems that prevented him from blossoming fully as an Auburn quarterback, and Jarrett Stidham never got any better than he was when he came to the Plains.
That leaves us with Bo Nix.
The junior signal-caller has been orange and blue his entire life, and he ran a Gus Malzahn offense most of his high-level football life. That’ll all change with the Harsin attack, where Auburn should be testing defenses downfield and using all eligible receivers to catch passes. So, with maybe the biggest question of spring practice looming, let’s see what the new staff has to work with at the most important position on the field.
Projected Starter: Bo Nix - JR - 6’3, 215
- Career Stats: 431-734 (58.7%), 4,957 yards, 28 TDs, 13 INTs
- Biggest Question: What does Bo Nix need to do to become an upper-level SEC quarterback? Is it improving the completion percentage? Is it sticking in the pocket a little longer? What did Gus Malzahn do to break him over the past couple of years? Is he fixable? Can Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo work with him to turn him into a steady presence in the backfield?
Ok, that’s several questions instead of just one, but there’s still a lot to figure out with Bo. Over his first two seasons, Auburn has won in spite of Bo’s performance on several occasions. The win over Oregon in his first career start finished well, but it took almost three quarters for the Tigers to score a touchdown. That debacle in the Swamp was totally on Bo, and other losses in 2019 like the close defeat in Baton Rouge and the defeating blow to Georgia all fell squarely on the shoulders of the quarterback. Yeah, he had some games where he was great, but they never came against the top competition, and Auburn’s recent modus operandi has seen great seasons result from steady, if not stellar, quarterback play.
Bo needs serious improvement with his footwork, his awareness, his patience, and his accuracy. Now, when you’re running for your life as much as he was last season, it doesn’t all fall at his feet. We saw what happened when even a guy like Patrick Mahomes didn’t have the protection he needed. The Auburn offensive line likely won’t be a strength in 2021, but it can take steps forward to not be a total and complete sieve on passing plays. A little help there should let Bo advance and at least get up toward the 63% completion percentage.
Thankfully, Auburn should be able to lean on Tank Bigsby a good bit more in 2021, since he’s a known quantity and won’t need to work into the offense over the first couple of games like Gus used to do. With that, maybe the spotlight shifts off of Bo a little bit, and he can be the complementary piece to the rushing attack with Tank leading the way. It might do him good to not feel like he’s got to do it all on his own.
- Grant Loy: The Transfer from Bowling Green came in and was there to help provide a little bit of depth for Auburn last season, but there’s no indication that he’ll ever really be a candidate for starter. He’ll be the guy that can steadily step in and won’t be flustered if everyone else gets hurt, but if he’s taking meaningful snaps, then Auburn is in trouble.
- Dematrius Davis: Now here’s where it gets interesting. If Gus Malzahn was still the coach, the guy that Ryan Sterritt dubbed “Thicc Marshall” might have been the hot message board candidate for starter. He would look good rekindling the zone read magic of the early teens and HUNH-ing teams to death with a savant’s touch on the give or the pull. One of the winningest Texas high school quarterbacks ever, he’s no stranger to success, but we’ll have to see what kind of a presence he’s got in the offense this fall. Unless he comes in and wows during spring practice, he’ll be a favored backup and one of the most popular players on the roster by fans who love the second-string QB. If you’re looking for him to start, then at least be assuaged by the fact that Harsin and Bobo likely have zero attachment to Bo based on personal history.
- Chayil Garnett: Chayil was a bit of a project coming in, even if he was a favorite entry in the “Star Wars character or Auburn athlete” game that Ryan, Chief, and Crow played on the Orange and True podcast occasionally. He didn’t take any snaps last season, and was really brought in as a Gus quarterback, so we’ll see how he fits in with what Harsin wants to do, and if he has the talent to keep a guy like Davis off of his heels in the pecking order.
So, Auburn has some talent at quarterback (obviously), but it’s still raw talent. It shouldn’t be, since Nix will be an upperclassman, but that’s out of our control now. Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo have themselves an opportunity to turn Bo into the player that many thought he would be coming out of high school, or ride with a freshman if Bo turns out to have already hit his ceiling. There are many things that will affect the Auburn quarterback effectiveness, including the offensive line, running back depth, and development of the young receivers, but we know that whoever ends up taking the snaps will be scrutinized above all other positions.