Auburn football will return to action in less than three weeks with the start of spring practices on March 1. Between now and then, SEC Country will preview each of the Tigers’ position groups heading into camp. Here, we start with quarterbacks.
The depth chart
Jarrett Stidham (Junior)
- 246-370 (66.5 percent) passing for 3,158 yards (8.5 YPA), 18 touchdowns and 6 interceptions in 2017
- 103 rushes for 153 yards and 4 TDs in 2017
- Expected to miss at least first half of spring practices (left shoulder surgery)
Malik Willis (Sophomore)
- 6-7 (85.7 percent) passing for 45 yards (6.4 YPA), 1 TD and 0 INT in 2017
- 16 rushes for 221 yards (13.81 YPC) and 1 TD in 2017
Joey Gatewood (Freshman)
- Early enrollee
- Devin Adams (Senior — walk-on)
- Wil Appleton (Redshirt freshman — walk-on)
The departures and the arrivals
Arrivals: None (Gatewood was the only 2018 QB signee)
How will Willis and Gatewood take advantage of the extra reps?
Auburn will return a starting quarterback for the first time since 2014, but he won’t lead the way in spring practice — at least not at the beginning. Stidham is expected to miss the first half of camp while recovering from offseason surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. At best, he’ll be limited for the second half.
That swings the spotlight to Willis and Gatewood. Willis was Stidham’s No. 2 quarterback last season and dazzled with his running ability in garbage time. He didn’t get too many opportunities to lead the full scope of the offense, though. That should change in spring practices and at the A-Day game in April.
Gatewood, a massive dual-threat quarterback at 6-foot-5, arrives with plenty of hype. He won’t be expected to play in 2018, but that could change with an impressive offseason. Both young quarterbacks have the opportunity to earn playing time for the fall with good work in the spring. The right showing could force Gus Malzahn and Chip Lindsey to find some sort of role for them.
Stidham’s starting job is secure. But fans of Willis should get a good glimpse of the future of Auburn’s offense with him taking first-team reps this spring. Willis is a dynamic runner who showed plenty of polish with his passes last spring. After a full year of learning and working behind Stidham, he has the opportunity to be the star of spring practices yet again this year.
The wild card
Gatewood’s highlight tape can make him seem like the second coming of Cam Newton. But he’s more of a project than some fans realize. Gatewood hasn’t had formal quarterback training and had to split time in high school with another Division I prospect. The freshman should benefit greatly from extra work with Lindsey as an early enrollee. He’ll undoubtedly be one of the most popular names in spring ball.
Willis’ spring performance directly leads to more playing time in the fall.
Willis’ preseason showings and flashes of game-breaking ability last fall begged the question: Why didn’t he get more snaps in 2017? Now that he has a full year of college football behind him, Willis should make a strong case for increased playing time in 2018. He’ll most likely be the front-runner for the starting job once Stidham heads to the NFL. Whether it’s in a specific package such as the wildcat or more freedom once he gets into games, Willis will make it hard for Auburn to keep him on the sidelines.
2. Stidham threw for 3,158 yards last season, making him the second quarterback in Auburn history to top the 3,000-yard mark for a single campaign. He also ranks second all-time in single season pass attempts with 370. Both marks for Stidham are behind Dameyune Craig, who threw 403 times for 3,277 yards in 1997.
Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey on Malik Willis:
“I think he’s becoming more and more comfortable, obviously, with the offense. I think he’s very comfortable with that now. But just things that we want to coach with him now are just carrying his self like a quarterback all the time — good, bad or indifferent on the field — being able to have that really good body language, because you’re the leader of the team when you’re the quarterback. He’s doing a really nice job of taking coaching, trying to do that. He’s learned how to prepare as the season’s gone along. He’s got a really bright future.”