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Gus Malzahn won’t go conservative with true freshman QB, and other takeaways from Auburn

‘I’ve always wanted to play quarterback at Auburn’: Bo Nix named Tigers’ starting QB

Auburn Tigers freshman Bo Nix was named the starter at quarterback. He'll make his first start against the Oregon Ducks on August 31.
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Auburn Tigers freshman Bo Nix was named the starter at quarterback. He'll make his first start against the Oregon Ducks on August 31.

The last time Auburn took the field against Oregon, Gus Malzahn was an offensive coordinator, Gene Chizik was his boss and Tigers’ safety Daniel Thomas wanted them both to lose. He grew up an Alabama fan, after all (he says he “can’t stand” the Crimson Tide now, for the record).

Malzahn had a Heisman winner in Cam Newton at his disposal. Bo Nix, his quarterback now, was 10 years old.

That’s about as close a comparison as one can make to that 2011 BCS Championship, which the Tigers won 22-19 on a last-second field goal. Malzahn is now the Tigers’ head coach, Chizik is an analyst for SEC Network and Katy Perry’s “Firework” no longer owns the Billboard Top 40.

Nix takes his first collegiate snap this week, as a true freshman against one of the nation’s top programs.

Gus Malzahn can ill afford to call a conservative game plan this week, as his Auburn Tigers face a ranked Ducks team with its own experienced — and uber-talented — quarterback. The good news for Auburn is, Malzahn does not plan to.

At his weekly Tuesday game-week press conference, Malzahn said Nix’s first start will be “as big as it’s going to get,” with College GameDay in town and the ESPN Saturday Night crew calling the game. And Auburn’s games against lesser opponents do not fall until September 7 and September 14, when the Tigers face Tulane and Kent State.

Oregon is a different beast than those two programs.

Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert threw for more than 3,000 yards and 29 touchdowns last season. Running back C.J. Verdell ran for more than 1,000 yards. The Ducks held opponents to 37% on third down last season, and scored nearly double the amount of touchdowns on the year.

“It’s going to be interesting,” Thomas said. “We’ve got to do our checks, do our adjustments, and study all his checkdowns and who he likes to throw to. … It’ll be a big test for us and our secondary.”

The Ducks are no pushover, especially for a team starting an inexperienced player at the offense’s most important position.

“I don’t think going against one of the top teams in the country you can just be conservative,” Malzahn said. “I think there is a fine line to try to put Bo Nix in comfortable situations. We are going to have to be balanced to try and win against one of the top teams in the country.”

Malzahn said he and his staff plan on doing “some things (Nix) feels comfortable with,” though what that means is unknown. He said in previous press conferences that Nix has the ability to run and extend plays. Right tackle Jack Driscoll said Nix can “make plays out of nothing.”

This could be an important wrinkle in the offense. The Tigers have not fielded a true dual-threat quarterback since Nick Marshall.

Nix walks into an experienced offense. Senior receiver Will Hastings and junior Eli Stove were both named as starters on Auburn’s official depth chart. Each starter on the offensive line is a senior.

Malzahn said the Tigers “need to be really good around” Nix. Driscoll said he’s up there with Herbert, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm.

“I think (Nix) is definitely in that caliber of players,” Driscoll said. “I think you’ll see Saturday night that he’s in that group of players. … Some of the plays he makes, and throws he makes, are spectacular.”

Nick Coe does it all

It’s no surprise that Auburn’s first pregame depth chart of the season features plenty of “OR”s. Malzahn is, expectedly, playing things close to the sweater vest as Saturday draws near.

291-pound junior Nick Coe was listed as the Tigers’ starting outside linebacker (Coe is not an outside linebacker). And backup defensive end. And backup defensive tackle.

“(Coe) can play outside, inside, he can play off the ball — he’s a very versatile player that gives our defense a lot of flexibility,” Malzahn said. “It’s rare, but I think that’s a good rare.”

Receiver’s status still in question

Surprise, surprise: Any answers to whether receiver Anthony Schwartz will play will have to wait until Saturday.

Schwartz broke his left hand early in fall camp and Malzahn said he will be a “game-time decision.” Schwartz and Seth Williams are listed as the two candidates for the first receiver spot on the Tigers’ depth chart.

“We’re hopeful, but we don’t know the answer to that yet,” Malzahn said.

Running backs? Auburn’s got a few

Auburn listed six running backs as potential starters for Saturday night. Six.

Jatarvious “Boobie” Whitlow, Kam Martin, Malik Miller, Shaun Shivers, D.J. Williams and Harold Joiner all had “OR” beside their names. Malzahn said Whitlow will be the “first guy that goes out.”

So, Whitlow is the starter.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in all of them and they all could possibly play,” Malzahn said. “We could possibly play them all and we’re impressed with all of them.”

What about Gatewood?

6-foot-5 redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood lost the quarterback battle, but could be in line for some snaps on Saturday. Or he could not be. Malzahn won’t say, obviously, but would not rule out the possibility Gatewood playing.

“There could be (a plan),” Malzahn said. “Each game will probably be different. Of course Joey is our backup quarterback, one play away from playing.”

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.