AUBURN — Eli Stove turned toward Joey Gatewood like he was looking for a screen, made the defender on him bite, then turned upfield and sprinted down the right sideline. The redshirt freshman quarterback hit the junior wide receiver for a 28-yard completion.
The tone of Auburn’s A-Day spring game was set on the first play.
The story of the day was the team’s four quarterbacks. It was always going to be — the Tigers return their top three rushers, a talented group of wide receivers, five senior starters on the offensive line and a ton of experience on defense.
But they need a quarterback to replace departed two-year starter Jarrett Stidham, who was at Jordan-Hare Stadium to take in Saturday’s scrimmage. Gatewood, Bo Nix, Malik Willis and Cord Sandberg all made their case in their first chance to compete in front of fans (an announced 41,489 of them) in the team’s 15th and final practice of the spring.
“Probably the positive is all four quarterbacks made some explosive plays. I thought that was good,” Auburn head coach and play-caller Gus Malzahn said. “We went into this game with a plan for the quarterbacks to play like it was. All of them did some good things.”
Gatewood and Nix donned orange jerseys to play with the first-team offense in the first half with Willis and Sandberg in green with the second team. They flipped at halftime, and Malzahn said offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham has had a different order every day this spring, but the fact that it started out that way on A-Day does seem telling.
The redshirt freshman Gatewood got the first reps both in 7-on-7 drills and in the game, completing 8 of 12 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Both of those scores went to sophomore wide receiver and offensive MVP Seth Williams, who made leaping grabs in the right corner of the end zone on throws of 11 and 29 yards.
It’s a substantial improvement from last year’s spring game, when Gatewood completed just 4 of 14 passes for zero yards on an ugly day for an offense that was playing without an injured Stidham.
“He’s a different quarterback than he was at this time last year,” Malzahn said. “He does have more confidence. He has really been focused and really desperate to win the job. So he’s had a very good spring. And like I said, today he made some explosive plays. And when you let him go live, it’s a little bit different too.”
The only quarterback who performed better that Gatewood was the true freshman Nix, who was back on the field his father, Patrick Nix, once starred on for the Tigers, as well as the one he led Pinson Valley High to a second straight Class 6A state championship on in December.
The five-star Alabama Mr. Football completed 11 of 17 passes for a team-leading 155 yards and two touchdowns, finding Stove from 11 yards out and a wide-open Matthew Hill over the middle for a 49-yard touchdown to end the first half.
Nix also showed off a running ability that is not to be slept on — the touchdown to Stove was thrown on the run across his body as he rolled out to the right of the pocket, and he would have rushed for much more than 16 yards on three carries had he not been wearing a non-contact jersey.
“In our league, it’s not 7-on-7. You drop back, you’re going to have to create, you’re going to have to extend plays and he’s done a solid job of that,” Malzahn said. “And, really, the other three have too. They can all run. All four of those guys can run, so I think that’s important, too, because in our league things break down and you’ve got to extend plays and when you extend plays you have to protect the football.”
Willis, the most veteran experienced option of the four after appearing in 15 games as Stidham’s primary backup over the past two seasons, started with the second-team offense but made the most of his opportunity Saturday. The junior completed an efficient 9 of 10 passes for 95 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown strike that Hill caught in traffic. He also carried four times for 5 yards.
Cord Sandberg, the 24-year-old former minor league baseball player seen as the fourth man in the competition, completed 8 of 9 passes for 54 yards and did not get the Tigers into the end zone on any of his possessions in the game.
“They all did good. Everybody is going to have their ups and downs in the game. The coaches might think something like they should have thrown it somewhere else. But they all did pretty good today,” Stove said. “I think any of them could be the starting quarterback. It’s not really my decision. It’s Coach Malzahn’s decision. But I think he’s going to make the right decision.”
The next step, Malzahn said, is to assess the performances of those quarterbacks through all 15 of Auburn’s spring practices as a whole, not just A-Day, and see where they stand. The coach said that will happen next week. The goal is to be able to determine some sort of order on the depth chart for when summer workouts begin.
Malzahn certainly won’t make that order public, and this quarterback competition will certainly rage on into fall practice ahead of a high-profile opener against Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
But there was certainly a lot to like about the players battling for that starting job on Saturday.
“The positive is, I think we’ve got some good options. We’ve got quite a few of them we feel like can move the offense, and they’re all a little bit different, too. That’s always good,” Malzahn said. “I’m not ready to say right now anything other than we have good information and next week we’ll assess everything to kinda see where we’re at.
“Like I told you, we want some kind of order after spring and I think that we’ll be able to get to that point.”