AUBURN — The NBA draft has passed and the College World Series is over, so you know what that means:
It’s college football season.
Well, not officially. The first game of the year, between Miami and Florida, is still a ways away. Auburn won’t face Oregon in Arlington, Texas, until Aug. 31.
But football is right around the corner. SEC Media Days begins next week in Hoover. Fall camp will begin not long after the four-day circus at the Wynfrey Hotel.
Here's an early look at Auburn's quarterback situation heading into the post-Jarett Stidham era.
Joey Gatewood (R-Fr.), Bo Nix (Fr.), Cord Sandberg (R-Fr.)
What we know
There are two things we know for certain.
The first thing we know is that Auburn’s starting quarterback on Aug. 31 against Oregon will be Gatewood or Nix. Coach Gus Malzahn announced that May 1, narrowing a four-man competition that also included Sandberg and junior Malik Willis, who has since entered the transfer portal, down to two.
The second thing is for the first time as a head coach, Malzahn is going into a season-opener with a first-time starter at quarterback. That has been guaranteed ever since Stidham declared for the NFL draft and Kelly Bryant chose Missouri over Auburn.
Gatewood and Nix have only one drive of experience between them. The former played late in the Tigers’ Music City Bowl rout of Purdue on Dec. 28. The latter is a five-star true freshman who was still in high school seven months ago.
Every other quarterback who has started Week 1 for Auburn since Malzahn became the head coach in 2013 — Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson, Sean White and Stidham — had started at least one game before, whether at school (Marshall and Stidham) or in place of the regular starter (Johnson for Marshall, and White for Johnson).
Those first starts for the Tigers came against Washington State, Western Carolina, Mississippi State and Georgia Southern, respectively. Whoever wins the competition between Gatewood and Nix will start against a ranked Oregon team inside the 80,000-seat AT&T Stadium in prime time on national television.
"That is a reality, that guys are going to be out there for their first real college football game against one of the better teams in all of college. But we'll have a plan for them," Malzahn said at an AMBUSH tour event in Columbus, Georgia, on June 17. "We're going to rely on our guys around them."
What we don't know
What we don’t know yet is whether either of those quarterbacks will be capable of leading Auburn’s offense. That may seem overly simplified, but it’s the truth — there is no way to project what will happen against the Ducks.
We can look at who they are on paper. The 6-foot-5, 233-pound Gatewood is the closest thing Malzahn said he’s seen to Cam Newton physically and is a true dual threat as a thrower and a runner. The 6-foot-2, 207-pound Nix doesn’t have the same size, but the son of former Tigers quarterback Patrick Nix may have even more polish as a passer — he owns the Alabama state records for total offensive yards and touchdowns — and is a capable runner himself.
We’ve seen what they can do in a scrimmage setting. Gatewood completed 7 of 10 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns during the first half of Auburn’s April 13 A-Day game. Nix completed 11 of 16 throws for 155 yards and two scores and also carried three times for 16 yards.
"Both of them are straight ballers. Both came in ready to play," redshirt freshman wide receiver Matthew Hill said on A-Day. "I knew what I was kind of expecting out of both of them. I'm proud of the way both of them played."
But you never know how that talent or spring performance will translate when the lights are on. Not much was known about Marshall when he won the starting job in 2013, and he became a star who helped lead the Tigers to the BCS National Championship game. Johnson entered the 2015 season with incredible hype and was benched in favor of White by Week 4.
The good news is that the reviews for both have been positive since the spring ended. Malzahn said narrowing the competition down to Gatewood and Nix has allowed them to “develop themselves and establish themselves as a leader and take charge.” Malzahn said he hopes to identify a starter early in fall camp.
Auburn won’t truly know what it has at that position, though, until the season kicks off against Oregon.
They said it
“If you're going to be a quarterback in the SEC, you're the face of the program. You've got to be assertive. You can't be a passive person. You have to be your personality, but there are times where you're going to have to learn how to be aggressive or how to clap loud or how to say the cadence loud or how to communicate loud, how to take command. … Jarrett Stidham is not here anymore. There is nobody you're looking at and saying, 'Hey, is it my turn to talk?' It is your turn. It is your time. Take it.” — Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham