When Auburn needs to turn to Jarrett Stidham’s backup, it’s likely going to be this young talent

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Who ultimately backs up Stidham? — @The_poet_within

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s starting quarterback job belongs to Jarrett Stidham, but given the choice between a mini-Cam Newton or a mini-Nick Marshall, who ultimately will win the backup job on The Plains this fall?

To answer this question, let’s use process of elimination.

Joey Gatewood has given Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey and all Auburn fans reason to be excited. He snagged the MVP award in the Under Armour All-America Game and, on paper, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound freshman is a college coach’s dream quarterback.

He’s also been devoted, and all of those factors mean a lot to Malzahn.

“Quarterback Joey Gatewood is a guy that’s been committed to us for two years. Really, from my standpoint, he stayed loyal to us the whole time. Never flinched,” Malzahn said. “We had a coordinator change, and he hung in there with us. He’s a very big guy. He can run. He’s very athletic. He has a chance to be real special for us, we feel like.”

But just because Gatewood will one day jog into Jordan-Hare Stadium as a starter doesn’t mean he will back up Stidham in September.

MORE: Why this Auburn running back might look best as redshirt in 2018 

Malzahn’s newcomer might resemble Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner, but he still doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. Teammates have had positive things to say about the Florida native, but haven’t hinted that he’ll challenge to be the No. 2 guy.

“I think he’s got a strong arm. He’s a big kid,” Auburn wide receiver Darius Slayton said. “Just like any other freshman coming in, he’s got some things to learn. But I think he’s done a solid job so far.”

Auburn football-Auburn Tigers-Auburn-Joey Gatewood-Auburn spring practice
Auburn quarterback Joey Gatewood has impressed teammates and coaches as an early enrollee this spring. (Benjamin Wolk/SEC Country)

The experience Gatewood is getting with Stidham sidelined and Willis leading the first unit will be valuable if Stidham decides to leave for the NFL after next season, which is a real possibility. With that in mind, Gatewood has been paying attention and doing everything in his power to excel even just a few spring practices into his college career.

“Joey has gotten the reps with the twos and I think he’s been a quick learner,” Malzahn said. “There’s a lot of moving parts to being the quarterback in our system that you’ve got. … I’ve been impressed with his want-to and I know Coach Lindsey has felt the same way. You can tell he’s very talented; you can tell that. These first two days have been good for him.”

MORE: How active will QB Jarrett Stidham be after spring break? 

Very few people can walk into the SEC and star as a freshman. While Gatewood has that potential, he’s fighting another battle with sophomore Malik Willis, who’s got SEC-quarterback talent as well.

The Gatewood-Willis quarterback clash is going to be epic, but not right away. Willis, who is just 6-foot-1 and 202 pounds, was listed as an athlete as a recruit, and a lot of people didn’t think he could play quarterback after high school. But he has been impressive in his year-plus on The Plains in backing up Stidham.

And Gatewood? Well, the comparisons to Newton are flattering, but there’s a lot to learn about playing in the SEC.  So, for now, Willis will be the one Auburn turns to if it needs a second option for whatever reason in the pocket. There might be a different winner to this battle in 2019, but for now, it’s Willis.

“He actually looks like an SEC quarterback when he is out there,” linebacker Deshaun Davis said of Willis after one spring practice. “He has total control of that group. Everyone is listening to him. He’s made some great throws. There’s still room to get better, but that’s for everybody, though.”

Confidence comes naturally to Willis. That was evident as soon as he stepped on the field last season. Now that he has picked up more knowledge of the Auburn offense and reps behind Stidham, he’s even more dangerous.

“Things are becoming natural for him,” Malzahn said. “You can tell he’s not having to think about a whole lot of stuff. He’s starting to just play football. I think that’s really important.”

Auburn football-Auburn-Auburn Tigers-Malik Willis
Auburn quarterback Malik Willis was the new No. 2 on the Plains last fall. (Justin Ferguson/SEC Country)

So why not just go ahead and announce Willis the backup? Why drag it out when Auburn seems to have a clear backup at the position? Malzahn walked right around that direct question when asked about it on March 3. His answer was this:

“I mean, we’ve got a lot of confidence in Malik,” Malzahn said. “He was our backup quarterback last year and just like I said, I mean, he really is taking a step forward and he looks like a starter out there. You know, I’d say right now Joey is just learning the foundation, so it’s really hard to say, but we have a lot of confidence in Malik.”

Malzahn is a coaching veteran and knows what can happen when two soon-to-be stars face off, so set that up now. See who pushes who on any particular day. Let mini-Cam frustrate mini-Nick, and vice versa. It’ll only mean improvement for both underclassmen. But don’t get it wrong; the backup job is Willis’ to lose.

“You know, last year, Malik would have played — especially the second half of the season, we would have felt pretty good that we could have run most of our offense,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in Malik.”

The post When Auburn needs to turn to Jarrett Stidham’s backup, it’s likely going to be this young talent appeared first on SEC Country.

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