Roundtable: Will Auburn football's Bo Nix flourish or flounder under Bryan Harsin?
The curtain will lift on the Bryan Harsin era when Auburn plays its spring game Saturday (1 p.m. CT) at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
A new coaching staff means new schemes, offering some A-Day intrigue. Plus, it’s an opportunity to see how Bo Nix is progressing as he prepares for his third season as Auburn’s starting quarterback.
Let’s zero in on some hot topics entering the spring game.
Blake Toppmeyer: I think a new coaching staff might offer the reboot Bo Nix needs. Obviously, there's talent in the former five-star recruit, but he offered mediocre production through two seasons. He needs to boost his completion percentage and limit mistakes. Do you get a sense for how Nix has adjusted to this new staff and whether he might be poised for a big season?
Josh Vitale: It's hard to be certain without actually seeing him, which is one of the reasons I'm interested in A-Day. But much of what we’ve heard has been positive, and it doesn't sound like it's just coaches sugarcoating things. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has been impressed with his athleticism and work ethic, which he's had all along. They've harped on his fundamentals. Harsin said they're focusing on his decision-making – making the right throw and right play, rather than forcing things (as we've seen him do in the past). But the fact that this never once seemed like a competition with a new coaching staff coming in, to me, is telling. It's fair to remain skeptical given what we've seen the past two seasons, but with Bobo's and Harsin's track records developing quarterbacks, I think there's reason to be optimistic that Nix can take that next step everyone expected last year.
Toppmeyer: What about Auburn's backup quarterback competition? I suspect that will continue into August, but we should get a sense for where guys stand on the pecking order Saturday. Do you think it's four-star freshman Dematrius Davis' job to lose? Or, does Bowling Green graduate transfer Grant Loy have the best shot to be Nix's backup? We didn't see much of Loy last year other than as a holder on kicks. Chayil Garnett provides the fourth option.
Vitale: I suspect that, right now, Loy is the backup, because he has multiple years of college experience and Auburn's other scholarship quarterbacks are freshmen. But if you're looking toward the future, Davis is the guy to be excited about. He's a dual-threat prospect who put up video-game statistics and won at the highest level in Texas. Coaches were careful earlier this spring to not hype him up too much, given that he’s early in the process of developing into a college quarterback. But the skill set is there. It will be fun to get a chance to see him show that Saturday.
Toppmeyer: If I'm Harsin, I'd be tempted to have Tank Bigsby observe A-Day from about the fourth row of the stands. Don't let your top weapon get hurt. Spring is a fine time for hyperbole, so let me engage in a little, and you walk me back to reality if I'm getting crazy here: With Bigsby and Shaun Shivers, does Auburn have a claim to the best running back duo in the SEC?
Vitale: I think there is an argument to be made. Bigsby rushed for more yards as a freshman than Bo Jackson did, and he didn't even emerge as the offense’s true focal point until Week 5. That won't be the case with Harsin and Bobo calling the shots, given their offenses' history producing high-caliber workhorse backs (Ian Johnson, Doug Martin, Jay Ajayi, Knowshon Moreno, Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, etc.). They have raved about Bigsby. And the offense they run – which will feature more pro-style, downhill elements than Gus Malzahn's did – is the perfect fit for Shivers. He'd rather run through a defender than around one despite being listed at 5-foot-7. Auburn lacks depth at the position, and the offensive line is a question mark, but that's a solid 1-2 punch.
Toppmeyer: I can't be the only one disappointed about the news of J.J. Pegues' position change. I'll miss seeing the 6-foot-3, 308-pounder streak downfield on pass routes as a tight end. That was a shock to the system every time I watched it unfold, but in a good way. On the flipside, I understand the logic of moving him to a defensive line. How much do you think we'll see him in his new role Saturday, and what kind of impact can he make there?
Vitale: A spring game feels like as good of time as any to try to get him some experience playing up front, even if he didn't start practicing at the position until Monday. There's room for him to contribute on the defensive line. With so many of the defensive ends from last year's team stepping back and playing "Edge" outside linebacker in Derek Mason's primarily 3-4 scheme, Auburn has only eight true defensive linemen, and Jeremiah Wright is out with a torn ACL. Pegues has a lot to learn. He didn't play any defensive tackle in high school. But the skill set that made him fun to watch at tight end has the potential to make him a force on defense. It's just a matter of how quickly he picks things up.
Toppmeyer: Lastly, which side of the ball do you think shows an upper hand on Saturday? I'm not sure how much that matters, because ultimately you don't play against yourself during the regular season. Still, it might offer insight into AU's strengths and deficiencies. Throughout last season, Auburn's offense lagged behind its defense. Do you still expect that to be the case?
Vitale: Based on Harsin’s comments after the team's first two scrimmages, the defense has been ahead of the offense, which is understandable. Both sides are learning new schemes, but I think that takes a little longer on offense than it does on defense. Plus, the passing game, in particular, has been hampered by injuries, with two players expected to be key contributors in an already inexperienced receiving corps spending much of the spring sidelined. For now, it's just about the offense showing signs that it could be improved come fall.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. If you enjoy their coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.