Auburn quarterbacks

Auburn quarterbacks walk onto the field during the A-Day spring practice game at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, April 13, 2019.

DOTHAN — Auburn’s quarterback competition isn’t over yet, but it is no longer a four-man race like it was during spring practice.

Gus Malzahn announced Wednesday that the Tigers will focus on redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix over the summer and into the fall. One of those players, the head coach said, will be the team’s starting quarterback when the team takes the field in its Aug. 31 opener against Oregon in Arlington, Texas.

Junior Malik Willis (who Malzahn said “competed well”) and redshirt freshman Cord Sandberg (who the coach believes will “get better and better”) will operate in backup roles.

“Joey Gatewood, Bo Nix are really 1, 1A,” Malzahn said before speaking at an AMBUSH tour event in Dothan.

“We got great information in the spring. We let them go live one time, we had a lot of scrimmage reps, a lot of different scenarios. Just feel like both those guys have a chance to really zero in. The more reps they get, obviously the better they’re going to be. But they showed that they can lead our offense and both of them have a chance to be a very successful quarterback here at Auburn.”

All indications were that this would be the outcome when Gatewood and Nix operated the first-team offense ahead Willis and Sandberg during the more meaningful first half of the team’s A-Day spring game on April 13. But Malzahn and first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham wanted to watch the tape and meet with all four players before making a final decision public.

The reason it is important that those quarterbacks know where they stand going into the summer, Dillingham said last week in Flowery Branch, Ga., is so they can take on leadership roles — and so their teammates can know who to look to as leaders — as Auburn goes through summer workouts, during which coaches have a limit to how much time they are allowed to spend with players.

“They can start getting the majority of the reps with (first-team) receivers and all that. I think that’s the big thing,” Malzahn confirmed Wednesday. “It’s extremely hard to develop any kind of timing, chemistry, when you’re rotating a bunch of quarterbacks. And so when you’ve got a chance to narrow things down and let those guys go at it and start working this summer — summer is critical, critical, critical as far as receiver-quarterback development and really, probably, leadership development.”

If the spring was any indication, the now-narrowed competition should be a fascinating one. Willis was the only quarterback in the room who entered the spring with more than one game’s worth of experience, but Gatewood and Nix were the most talked about by coaches and teammates, and each possess a different set of skills.

The 6-foot-5, 233-pound Gatewood is a true dual-threat in the physical mold of Cam Newton, which teammates have often reminded him about this spring even though he doesn’t care for the comparisons. The former four-star recruit out of Jacksonville, Fla., completed 8 of 12 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns on A-Day, and that was with his rushing ability capped by the orange, non-contact jersey he was wearing.

“When you let him go live, it’s a little bit different,” Malzahn said.

“He be trying to run everybody over,” junior wide receiver Eli Stove said. “He’s a strong, big guy. I would expect him to do that, too. I feel like he’s a running back with the ball, making all the cuts and all that.”

Nix doesn’t have the same size or speed, but the 6-foot-2, 207-pound rookie is a more-than-capable runner — he rushed for 2,112 yards and 34 touchdowns during high school career — and may have the highest ceiling of any as a passer. The five-star son of Tigers legend Patrick Nix set Alabama state records with more than 12,000 career yards and 161 career touchdowns, led Pinson Valley High to back-to-back Class 6A state championships in 2017 and 2018, and is the reigning Mr. Football in the state.

He completed 11 of 17 passes for 155 yards and two scores on A-Day.

“You know, he’s earned it,” Malzahn said. “We went into spring with a very open mind and wanted to put in a lot of different scenarios and situations. So, he’s earned it, as well has Joey Gatewood. He really improved from the fall, and both those guys were very desperate to win the position. That’s really what stood out to our coaches.”

The biggest question now, aside from who wins the job, might be what comes next for Willis, who was long thought of as the heir apparent to departed starter Jarrett Stidham. Sandberg is a redshirt freshman still getting reacquainted to the game after a six-year minor league baseball career, but Willis has only two seasons of eligibility remaining and might not be interested in playing behind two quarterbacks younger than he is.

“He’s a competitor,” Malzahn said of Willis. “You be honest with your players. When everything is all said and done after spring, he’s a competitor and he wants to keep improving and keep getting better.”

But the focus will be on Gatewood and Nix, which means Auburn is halfway toward answering its biggest question entering the 2019 season — Malzahn’s seventh at the helm.

“Those two guys really separated theirselves,” Malzahn said. “Looking forward to seeing who wins the job.”

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