The Gus Malzahn era at Auburn has generally been defined by two features: transfer quarterbacks and a smashmouth run game from spread formations.
His 2010 offense, led by Florida/JUCO transfer Cam Newton, brought Auburn a title. His 2013 offense, featuring Georgia transfer Nick Marshall, nearly brought another. In 2017, Jarrett Stidham transferred from Baylor with a pocket passing skill set, with the offense eventually fizzling due to the lack of an effective run game.
Now in 2019, Auburn adds a five-star QB, rated the country’s No. 1 dual-threat in the 2019 class.
But this time, the new hope at QB isn’t a transfer.
That QB is Bo Nix, son of ‘90s Auburn QB Patrick Nix and his QB the last two years at Pinson Valley HS, where the elder Nix is head coach. The father-son tandem won back-to-back Alabama state championships immediately upon their arrival. Now Nix is enrolled for winter conditioning and spring football with a chance to start as a true freshman.
Auburn has had pretty good luck with players named Bo, but they’ll face an interesting opportunity as they determine whether to hand the keys to a freshman.
Nix profiles as a versatile spread QB.
He measured in at 6’2, 204 at a SPARQ combine and ran a 4.71 40 and 4.37 shuttle, jumped 32 inches in the vertical, and threw the power toss 36.5 feet. At the same age, the 6’1 Tua Tagovailoa had a 4.9 40, 4.3 shuttle, a 33.2-inch vertical, and a 38.5 power toss, just to name an athlete with pretty comparable measurables.
In high school, Nix tended to use his quicks for evading pressure and buying time to uncork deep throws. His team also mixed in some QB run game and combined both skills with the triple option:
That’s a zone read, with a bubble screen replacing the traditional pitch option. The nickel chases the bubble, the DE doesn’t contain Nix, and there’s no one in the alley to stop Nix from getting up to speed.
For all of Nix’s athleticism, the Pinson Valley offense was very much a pass-first spread that had Bo throwing for 3,795 yards on the year with 44 TDs, along with just 290 rushing yards but seven rushing scores.
Consequently, Nix’s path to a title in Alabama was wildly different from the Malzahn flavor of spread offense.
Nix faced one of his toughest challenges against cross-town rival Clay-Chalkville High, whom they faced in the regular season (winning 28-21) and in the semifinals (winning 28-20).
Clay-Chalkville had a handful of Division I prospects, most notably Alabama signee D.J. Dale, a 6’3, 323-pound blue chip DT. They often tried to entice Nix’s squad toward running into a five-man box led by Dale.
Clay-Chalkville is in a conservative defense here, with seven defensive backs sharing the field with their middle linebacker and three down linemen. By flooding the field with DBs, they could push the game back to the trenches, where Dale (No. 5, seen here destroying the play) could dominate.
Malzahn’s normal tactic for making the most of a 200-pound signal-caller who can run a 4.7 40 would be to mix in more option or QB run game. If you make the QB a runner, you can guarantee a plus-one advantage in the run game. If the opponent is playing an ultra-small and conservative defense like Clay-Chalkville is here, then you can almost get a plus-two, with as many as six blockers for only five defenders in the box.
But the Pinson Valley OL just wasn’t up for trying to grind out a win against Dale, and that would have wasted their greatest strength: Nix’s arm and a deep collection of skill athletes on the perimeter.
So after three and a half unsuccessful drives, head coach/papa Nix pushed QB/son Nix in the opposite direction:
They went empty-backfield and stayed there, almost exclusively. With five receivers spread across the field, they could move the focal points back to the perimeter and away from Dale.
Nix cycled through three main plays that aimed to isolate his star receivers, most notably the 5’7 junior slot Keyonteze Johnson, who caught 14 balls in this game for 208 yards and a score — after taking a huge shot back when Pinson Valley was trying to work the run and screen game.
From these five-wide sets, Pinson Valley could basically run isolations for Johnson, running get-open option routes against a dime safety while the other four receivers ran what amounted to clear-out routes:
Clay-Chalkville is playing match coverage underneath with two defenders over the top and rushing four. They can’t get much more help for coverage defenders unless they rush only three. Nix is getting the ball out quickly and has wheels of his own, so the pass rush is really up against it.
Pinson Valley also ran a ton of wheel routes, with the WRs crossing paths and creating rubs or picks on the underneath defenders and then Nix reading the deep safety to know whether to throw the wheel or the dig.
Whoever didn’t get safety help was basically getting isolated, and Nix was firing dimes to guys who could move around in multiple alignments. This is the logical end game of spread football, flooding the field with capable receivers and running the offense through an athletic, strong-armed passer who can deliver quickly. It’s essentially the Pat Mahomes offense.
Pinson Valley ran for only 85 yards, a fair chunk on the Nix scramble, while Clay-Chalkville ran for 203. But throwing to skill players in one-on-one matchups is a more efficient way to score, and despite completing only 24 of 51 passes for 324 yards (6.3 ypa), Nix threw four touchdowns to zero interceptions.
Now Auburn has a cutting-edge talent and a chance to embrace innovation.
Pinson Valley’s struggle against Clay-Chalkville was essentially every SEC team’s struggle against Alabama. How do you defeat a team that has the strongest guys in the trenches?
Auburn legacies Patrick and Bo Nix did it by moving the battle to the perimeter, where Clay-Chalkville’s strength in the trenches didn’t matter. Clay-Chalkville tried to anticipate that by going small, but the Nix family doubled down on the spread by turning to an empty set.
Unless Newton has any eligibility left, the obvious prescription for Auburn is to employ the same strategy as Pinson Valley (and similar to what Clemson did against Bama): get as many good skill players on the field as possible and set up Nix to make quick reads with his strong and precise arm.
Stidham pushed them further in that direction, becoming the first Auburn passer of the 21st century to throw for 3,000 yards. But Stidham still did most of his work throwing off the threat of their downhill run game, while Nix could operate a pass-first system.
Trying to out-muscle Nick Saban’s Tide in the trenches, even with a smashmouth spread run game, is usually a fool’s errand. While Nix offers some size and athleticism to boost Malzahn’s traditional spread-to-run offense, he could offer so much more executing a spread passing attack. This could also help an Auburn offensive line that has struggled trying to run over the deadly fronts they face in the SEC West.
Auburn has happened upon the right star talent to take them in a new direction at the right time.