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Pinson Valley's Bo Nix runs for a long gainer during the Pinson Valley at Oxford, AHSAA high school region football game. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

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AUBURN — Jalen Hurts was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Year in 2016. Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench to replace him in the 2017 CFP National Championship game and helped Alabama beat a Georgia team led by Jake Fromm. Trevor Lawrence outdueled Tagovailoa to lead Clemson to a national title a year after that.

At the time of those accomplishments, all four of those quarterbacks were four- or five-star true freshmen ranked in the top five in their respective recruiting classes.

Auburn's Bo Nix is a five-star true freshman ranked No. 1 among dual-threat quarterbacks in the Class of 2019.

That’s not to say that Nix will be Auburn’s starting quarterback in 2019, nor that the Tigers would compete for a national championship if he was. Junior Malik Willis and redshirt freshmen Joey Gatewood and Cord Sandberg will also vie for the job vacated by Jarrett Stidham when spring practice begins on March 18, and no one would give Auburn better title odds than Clemson, Alabama or Georgia right now.

But it’s not outlandish to say that Nix could start at quarterback as a true freshman in 2019, especially considering that he enrolled early and will go through spring practice with the Tigers. It seems to happen more and more across college football every year.

“There's more and more guys, I think, that come into college programs that we see across the country that are more ready to play, and I think that's a reflection of offense in this day and age,” Nick Saban, who coached both Hurts and Tagovailoa at Alabama, said before January’s national championship against Lawrence and Clemson.

“There's a lot of good development of quarterbacks in a lot of different ways in terms of quarterback coaches, and I just think that the style of play that guys grow up in is a little closer to what you see in college football now, which enables a talented player to make the transition a little easier.”

There’s no doubt Nix is a talented player. The 2018 Alabama Mr. Football Award winner is one of the most decorated high school quarterbacks the state has ever seen. His teams at Scottsboro (2016) and Pinson Valley high schools (2017-18) combined to go 40-2 over his sophomore, junior and senior seasons. He is the state’s career-record holder for total offensive yards (10,393 passing, 2,112 rushing) and touchdowns (127 passing, 34 rushing). He completed 60 percent of his passes for 3,802 yards and threw 50 touchdowns (to just seven interceptions) as a senior.

Pinson Valley, coached by Nix’s father and Auburn legend Patrick Nix, won back-to-back Class 6A state championships in 2017 and 2018 with Bo quarterbacking the offense. The second of those was won at Jordan-Hare Stadium in December, with Gus Malzahn and a host of his future teammates watching from the sideline. Nix threw the record-setting touchdown pass to the same corner of the same end zone his father once hit Frank Sanders during the 1993 Iron Bowl.

“Patrick was one of the all-time greats here. Just does a super job preparing Bo,” Malzahn said after Nix signed in December. “You know, Bo’s the type in eighth or ninth grade, you felt like he was already in high school. He has that ability.”

Auburn doesn't have a long history of starting rookie quarterbacks. In the 47 seasons since true freshmen have been eligible to play college football (the NCAA allowed that only intermittently before a permanent rule change in 1972), only six quarterbacks have made their starting debut in their first seasons on campus — Chris Vacarella (1973), Ken Hobby (1981), Gabe Gross (1998), Kodi Burns (2007), Jonathan Wallace (2012) and Jeremy Johnson (2013).

Johnson, who started for an injured Nick Marshall in a Week 7 game against Western Carolina, is the only one to have done it under Malzahn. Of the six quarterbacks who have signed with Auburn straight out of high school since 2013, the Montgomery native is one of only two that hasn’t redshirted. Willis is the other.

But, like Saban said in January, high school seniors are coming into college ready to play immediately at a higher rate than they ever have before. That was certainly true at Auburn last season, when 11 of the team’s 21 high school signees not only played; but played consistently.

Seven true freshman skill players combined to account for 24.3 percent of the Tigers' total offensive yards (1,232) and 34.8 percent of its total rushing and receiving touchdowns (16) in 2018. The next-highest total during Malzahn’s tenure came in 2016, when five true freshmen accounted for 19.7 percent of the team’s yards (1,114) and 15.6 percent of its touchdowns (seven). Those are the only two seasons under Malzahn where either total has been above 10 percent.

Of course, running back and wide receiver are positions where multiple players get opportunities every game. Unless Malzahn dusts off the game plan from Auburn’s season-opening loss to Clemson in 2016, there will be only one quarterback leading the way when the Tigers open the 2019 season on Aug. 31. Nix will have to beat out Willis, Gatewood and Sandberg to be that quarterback.

“I like him. He’s a great kid. I had the chance to talk to him, and he’s a good kid. I see he actually really likes to learn and he’s actually working on his craft right now, too,” senior left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho said of Nix. “But at the end of it, it’s a coach’s decision to make. They’re going to figure out what best fits Auburn.”

The biggest question might be whether Malzahn feels comfortable putting his offense in the hands of a true freshman in high-profile, neutral-site game against a likely top-25 Oregon team at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — even if Nix is no ordinary true freshman.

“I’ve gotten to know Bo really, really well over the last year. Tremendous person, tremendous kid, has a really, really bright future,” Stidham said. “I think he can make all the throws. I really do. I think he’s really smart. He’s a coach’s kid, so he better be smart. I think the main thing for him is he can run around a little bit and extend plays.

“I think it’s going to be a really good competition. Obviously, I know every single one of those guys really, really well. I don’t know what direction all of that is headed. But I’ll be excited to see it.”

This article originally ran on annistonstar.com.

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