By Joshua Huff, sports editor
AUBURN, Ala. — Much has occurred for Auburn football between 1946 and now.
The Tigers have won four national championships during that span. They have groomed three Heisman Trophy winners and have had 10 head coaches prowl the sidelines. Yet, through all that, one achievement remained untouched since World War II: Naming a freshman as the starting quarterback.
That is until former Pinson Valley stalwart Bo Nix traded in his garnet and gold for Auburn navy blue and burnt orange.
“It’s a dream come true,” Nix said during his first press conference as the Auburn starting quarterback. “I’ve always wanted to play quarterback at Auburn. It’s a goal of mine that I’ve had for a long, long time as far as I can remember; All the way back to throwing the football in the backyard with my dad. I just wanted to play quarterback at Auburn. It was just an awesome moment.”
When Auburn takes to the field on Saturday, Aug. 31, to face Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Nix will become the first Tiger freshman quarterback to earn a starting nod since Travis Tidwell. The decision came after a fall camp in which Nix outperformed Joey Gatewood, whom held a slight edge over Nix heading into camp.
Throughout 14 fall camp practices, Nix, a five-start recruit and the No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the country, distanced himself from Gatewood. As camp went on, Nix became more comfortable in the new system. His accuracy improved and his rapport with the receivers grew. When the decision came, few in Nix’s camp were surprised to learn that the two-time Class 6A champion had bucked tradition and cemented himself in Auburn lore.
“As far as from spring to fall camp, I got a lot better. I was understanding the playbook and knowing what was going on at practice,” Nix said. “Knowing how coach (Gus) Malzahn called plays and all that stuff. Realistically, I just learned my receivers better. Throughout the summer, I was able to throw to them more and understand timing and the way that they ran and caught the ball.”
The transition from high school to college was made all the easier by the similarities in the offenses between Auburn and Pinson Valley. Malzahn runs a run-heavy spread that is designed behind the run but disguises those run schemes with pre-snap shifts. The offense essentially runs from inside out. The big change recently has been the focus on the run-pass option (RPO), which allows for more explosive plays. The quarterback has the option to keep the ball or hand it off to the running back depending on how the defensive secondary is lined up and how they act post snap.
Though the verbiage is different than it was at Pinson Valley, Nix was blessed to be coached by his father, Patrick Nix, who adapted several elements from the Auburn playbook. With most spread offenses running under the same premise, just with different signals, blocking schemes, disguises and shifts, the jump between offenses was not that difficult.
Helping the transition is the athleticism that Nix brings to the Tigers. As the top dual-threat quarterback in the country, Nix is able to not only perform from the pocket, but he is a threat to deal damage from anywhere. As noted in the 247Sports scouting report evaluation, “Nix shows sudden movement and reactive quickness in the pocket both to avoid rushers and to deliver the football. Quick thinker. Possesses light feet with quick energy.”
Of course, not everything is as Christmas morning. Nix still has work to do to become a more polished passer. He admits that he needs to work on his accuracy, his timing with his receivers, communicating with the offensive line and being a leader.
“As a freshman it’s tough,” Nix said of becoming the leader to players who have been in the system much longer. “If you’re the quarterback they expect a whole lot out of you. So, if you’re not necessarily having a great day you need to find ways to lead that will allow them to listen. And if you’re not having a good day you can’t really harp on them about getting the little things done. You have to encourage them and say, ‘Hey guys, I’ll fix my problem and just keep going and we’ll fix it as a whole.'”
Nix will now be thrown into the fire against a quality Oregon defense helmed by former Boise State defensive coordinator Andy Avalos. With the Broncos, Avalos guided a defense that typically was aggressive on passing downs and finished 30th in the country in total defense in 2018; Oregon finished 49th in total defense in 2018. Now, Avalos takes over a Duck defense that has nine of the 13 defensive front starters with 11 tackles or more from this past season returning.
Even more daunting is that No. 11 Oregon is just one of six teams ranked in the top 12 that Auburn will face this season.
“It’s what I signed up for,” Nix said. “I knew coming to Auburn that we we’re going to have a tough schedule every year. Maybe the toughest in the country this year. But the thing is, is that I have a really good defense, a really good offensive line and great skill players around me. As long as I do my job everything else will take care of itself.”