The pressure is on.
If there wasn’t enough already around them, from the family and friends of the two freshman Auburn quarterbacks, and from all the eyes of a fanbase desperate to find the team’s new savior behind center, Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix just have to turn around toward their head coach, hovering over them now in practice at the start of fall camp.
Gus Malzahn has turned the heat up on them both.
The Tigers coaches are ‘throwing a lot’ at Gatewood and Nix and ‘straining’ them both now that preseason practices have started, Malzahn said, as the team barrels toward its season opener Aug. 31 against Oregon still searching for a starting quarterback.
Malzahn ramped up install on Friday, putting in more of the offensive system on the first day of practice than he has on the first day of preseason camp in previous years.
Auburn put in three or four more plays than usual on the first day, Malzahn said — challenging Gatewood and Nix with more than Jarrett Stidham may have had to learn, or Nick Marshall, or even Cam Newton back during Malzahn’s time as offensive coordinator. What could’ve looked like a ho-hum opening weekend of workouts in shorts before the first day in pads on Tuesday was probably anything but that behind the facemasks of Gatewood and Nix.
“They’re desperate to win the job,” Malzahn said Friday, after that first day of practice.
“And I saw that desperation today.”
Gatewood is a redshirt freshman and Nix is a true freshman. Malzahn narrowed an open quarterback battle for the starting job down to those two candidates back at the end of spring practice in April. One way or the other, one freshman will be making his first start behind center when Auburn trots on the field to face Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Texas.
The reason Malzahn is throwing so much at them both may have less to do with them and more to do with the pieces around them. Auburn has five starters back along the offensive line, with key returners back at receiver and at running back.
The idea is simple: Speed up install because most of the offense can handle it — and find out which of the quarterbacks can keep up.
So far, after one day, the report is that both of them did.
“Today we decided to throw a lot more at them, and we feel like we have a veteran group, as far as our first group goes,” Malzahn said. “Our quarterbacks, obviously, we threw a lot at them but I thought it was good.
“For the most part, they handled the installation pretty well. You can tell they really have done a lot of work on their own this summer and that was encouraging to see.”
They didn’t act like freshmen, and that’s coming from not only their coach, but they’re older teammates on offense.
“They’re both mature,” senior left guard Marquel Harrell said. “When they walk around the complex, you can just tell they walk with a sense of maturity and just being around the team, they are young leaders already. As an old guy, a veteran, I can sense that leadership in them, which is important as a quarterback. Because when you take the field, all are eyes on you, especially at that position.
“It’s a lot of pressure, a lot of criticism that you will take, but those young guys are ready for it.”
That’s where Gatewood and Nix both took their biggest steps forward since the spring, Malzahn said, in their leadership and how they carry themselves. That’s why the coaches narrowed the competition down back in April, to instill in both of them the confidence of a frontrunner and to see how they’d take the reins in being in that position.
“I think it was more of a presence deal, just from both their presence,” Malzahn said, of those strides forward from the spring. “We’re straining them, now. We’re straining both of them. Just the way they handle it, I think, is important.
“They took to real coaching today. But I think the big thing, probably, is the maturity — which is good.”
Now, the only thing that’s left is for one of them to win the starting job, out under the burning August sun.
“I don’t think anyone could say who is the starter, who is not,” senior receiver Will Hastings said. “Both, throughout the workouts, throughout the offseason, both handled themselves very amazing. Both are just true leaders. Both speak up. They’re two great guys.
“I love both of them, and whoever gets that job, they’re going to take us to battle in Dallas, and I can’t wait.”