Joey Gatewood

Auburn quarterback Joey Gatewood throws under pressure from Auburn defender Richard Jibunor during a spring scrimmage on Saturday, March 30.

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AUBURN — Gus Malzahn is on record as saying he felt “really good” with the quarterbacks Auburn had coming up behind departed two-year starter Jarrett Stidham. But that doesn’t keep the seventh-year head coach from making a run at some outside options.

The Tigers were a finalist for Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant (who went to Missouri). They were rumored to have interest in Khalil Tate (who stayed at Arizona). They hosted Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall on a visit (West Virginia), and they probably would have loved a shot at landing former Alabama star Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma).

It’s hard to blame the coaching staff for looking, given that the four quarterbacks Auburn has on the roster — junior Malik Willis, redshirt freshmen Joey Gatewood and Cord Sandberg, and true freshman Bo Nix — have zero starts between them at the college level. But they have done enough as a group through 13 spring practices to make Malzahn feel even better than “really good” about them.

“We feel a lot more comfortable,” the head coach said Wednesday. “We got more information, but we’ve been challenging them, we’ve been straining them, putting them in a lot of different situations. That’s a very, very important position for us, but I feel more comfortable than when we started.”

Each of the four brings something different to the table. Willis is the most experienced, having completed 11 of 14 passes for 69 yards and carried 28 times for 309 yards in 12 games as Stidham’s backup. Gatewood is the most physically imposing at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds.

Malzahn once said the former reminded him of Nick Marshall and the latter was the closest thing he has seen to Cam Newton physically.

Sandberg is the most interesting, having joined the Tigers last season after a six-year minor league baseball career. Nix, the five-star son of program legend Patrick Nix, is perhaps the most polished — he’s the state’s all-time leader in career offense and touchdowns, a back-to-back state champion at Pinson Valley High, and the reigning Alabama Mr. Football.

All four are better rushing threats than Stidham, which seems to be something Auburn is looking for this season now that Malzahn has resumed offensive play-calling duties and plans to get back to his hurry-up, no-huddle roots.

He and first-year offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Kenny Dillingham have so far stuck with their plan to rotate all four of those quarterbacks evenly, splitting their reps between the first- and second-team offenses. They even shed their orange, non-contact jerseys and went live during the team’s first scrimmage on March 30, which is something that hasn’t happened at the top of the depth chart in a few years.

“It gives them a chance to show what they can do,” Malzahn said last week. “The decision making. So, you drop back, you know, and you get a little pressure — are you going to take off running? Are you going to throw it? Just all those things that, you know, you don’t get a chance to see in an orange jersey.

“Our goal was to get some kind of order. I can’t tell you right now that we’re going to leave spring with a depth chart or anything like that, but I will say this — each day you get more information. Some days, certain people look better than others, and the next day is different.”

It has looked and sounded at times during the spring so far like Gatewood and Nix have separated themselves in the competition, but Willis still appears to be very much involved — the junior was seen splitting first-team reps with Nix during the open viewing window of Wednesday’s practice, with Gatewood and Sandberg working with the second team.

“I think all four of those guys, they’re desperate to win the job and that’s what you’re looking for as a coach,” Malzahn said. “I know Coach Dillingham would say the same thing.”

Those quarterbacks will have one final chance to prove themselves going into the summer and fall during Saturday’s A-Day spring game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium (3 p.m., SEC Network).

Malzahn did not yet know Wednesday how he and Dillingham planned to rotate the quarterbacks during the annual scrimmage, which will pit the first team against the second team, but he did seem to make clear that they would not go live again.

Here’s what the head coach said he’s looking to see:

“Really managing the offense,” Malzahn said. “We’ve been putting in installs, we reinstalled, and then it gets to be a point that you just play the game. You let them play a game. And my experience is, you get them in front of a crowd and certain guys respond differently than others. Like I said, we let them go live. We learned a lot. But really just managing the offense and getting the ball in the end zone.”

This article originally ran on annistonstar.com.

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