AUBURN — When Gus Malzahn confirmed 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.”
Gatewood’s decision, coupled with the struggles Bo Nix had in road losses at Florida and LSU, reignited what have been among the most common criticisms of Malzahn’s tenure as head coach, ones that have followed him since Nick Marshall left following his final season of eligibility in 2014.
Auburn has signed 12 quarterbacks since Malzahn returned as head coach in 2013: — Marshall and Jeremy Johnson in 2013; Sean White in 2014; Jason Smith and Tyler Queen in 2015; Woody Barrett and John Franklin III in 2016; Jarrett Stidham and Malik Willis 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.
“I do think when you sit here and stack them all up and look at the guys, it’s not a flattering list,” said Woody Wommack, the Southeast recruiting analyst for Rivals and Yahoo Sports.
But the problem might not be their development at Auburn, Wommack said, 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 collegiate 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.
“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.”
But what about the quarterbacks who did stick around? Malzahn and his staffs actually have had success coaching those, like Paul Smith, Chris Todd and Ryan Aplin, the latter now UNA's offensive coordinator. That includes Malzahn's seven seasons at the college level (three as Auburn’s offensive coordinator) before he returned to the Plains as head coach in 2013.
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 BCS 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.
So 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. Clearly, that could be better. But it is good enough as is to debunk the “Malzahn can’t develop quarterbacks” myth.
Bo Nix 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.
“I still am very confident that he is going to be a successful quarterback,” Wommack said.