This scene has stuck with me since the moment that it happened. After No. 15 ranked Auburn defeated No. 5 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, ending the Crimson Tide’s chances of making the College Football Playoff, CBS reporter Jamie Erdahl asked Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn a question. In the midst of a field storming at Jordan-Hare stadium, complete with people walking through hedges just to be a part of it, Erdahl asked “What did Bo Nix show you today?”
Malzahn answered: “He’s a winner. He’s going to win a championship before he gets out of here.”
Malzahn said it in such a matter of fact way, as if his answer was second nature. Proclamations this size usually have more emotion behind them, but this response came off as though it was already set in stone that Auburn would win an SEC or national championship within the next two to three years.
Nix’s story is well documented. His dad was a quarterback at Auburn in the 1990s, turning Nix into a lifelong Auburn fan. The Nix family was in attendance as Cam Newton led Auburn to the national championship after the 2010 season.
Nix would eventually be named “Mr. Football” in Alabama during his senior year of high school, earning a four-star recruiting ranking. He won the starting quarterback job at Auburn as a true freshman, leading a now legendary game-winning touchdown drive in the season opener against Oregon at AT&T Stadium. Nix’s play was inconsistent as the year wore on, but he showed enough to be named SEC Freshman of the Year.
Auburn had a brutal schedule last season that included games against Oregon, Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Alabama and Minnesota. That’s a tough slate for any upperclassmen quarterback, never mind a true freshman. Nix seems destined to progress moving forward, and I broke down his tape to see his current strengths and weaknesses.
Nix is a plus athlete for the position, and his ability to make plays out of the pocket both as a passer and runner is special for his age. He has the arm strength to flick his wrist and make throws across his body or without a proper throwing platform, and the quickness in space to pick up yards with his legs.
This cut-up shows both his natural arm talent and ability on out of structure throws:
Bo Nix was named SEC Freshman of the Year. His play was inconsistent at times, but the splash throws are a sign of his talent. His upside is outstanding. pic.twitter.com/fcdUO0DtCS— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) May 11, 2020
While he’s a playmaker out of the pocket, Nix became too reliant on breaking contain and bailed from too many clean pockets. There are cases of Nix dropping his eyes to the pass rush or rolling away despite a lack of pressure, failing to attempt open throws in the process. This isn’t uncommon for a true freshman who found success outside of the pocket while in high school, and better pocket navigation and more comfortability should come with added experience and reps.
There are issues with Auburn QB Bo Nix’s navigation in the pocket. Has the habit of dropping his eyes to the rush, bailing from clean pockets or looking for running lanes despite a lack of pass rush. The third rep against Ole Miss, he’s leaving a TD pass to #5 on the field. pic.twitter.com/itTjR7RRey— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) May 11, 2020
When tasked with throwing towards the sideline, Nix has encouraging accuracy and ball placement. With the arm strength and tight release, the ball jumps out of his hands and he understands how to throw against cornerbacks who have their backs turned. With those traits, he’s already developed while throwing to the back shoulder.
Auburn rising So. QB Bo Nix— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) May 11, 2020
▪️Pinpoint placement to the comeback and back shoulder, especially in rhythm
▪️Arm strength to drive the ball from the far hash
▪️Tight release - ball can jump out of his hand pic.twitter.com/SArm0gQS3U
While Nix’s throws towards the sideline can be special, his intermediate accuracy over the middle can be lacking. Nix can have a late trigger that places the ball behind the receiver, inconsistent footwork that forces the ball to float out of his hand or over-extend his release and sail the ball. Mechanically, Nix just has inconsistencies that show up on occasion while throwing from the pocket.
One area where Bo Nix can improve in his sophomore season - intermediate accuracy. Some of these misses are the result of a late trigger, inconsistent footwork in the pocket, or overextending his release in an attempt to drive the ball through zone windows pic.twitter.com/5RYwVcJjZK— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) May 11, 2020
This issue persisted even on a number of completions. Nix doesn’t fully finish his follow through because of a pass rusher, and the ball placement ends up on the back hip of the receiver. Better accuracy out in front and this throw results in a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/L0vM8oyanp— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) May 11, 2020
His deep ball anticipation and accuracy leaves a bit to be desired as well. While he’s shown the ability to drop it in, he too often fails to lead the receiver away from coverage and hit them in stride. There are flashes of brilliance, but Nix will need to more rapidly diagnose safety movement in order to improve taking deep shots.
Bo Nix missed deep balls— NFL Clips (@NFLDraftVideos) May 11, 2020
• Drifting from the pocket and forcing a difficult throwing platform
• Sailing the ball out of bounds or over the receiver
• Failing to lead receiver towards open space pic.twitter.com/m3eqZxSGJu
With Nix having to transition from playing high school football to facing the toughest schedule in the country, it’s no surprise that the speed of the game was too fast for him at times. He could be just a tick slot on diagnosing coverage, going through his progression or anticipating the receiver’s route breaks. Oftentimes Nix was able to make throws while being just a bit slow to get the ball out of his hand, but better production could come if he puts all of his tools together.
Auburn So. QB Bo Nix— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) May 11, 2020
All three passes are the correct read, placed well to WR’s on the move
All three are late arrivals. Slightly better anticipation and these could hit the receivers without coverage quickly closing
These aren’t “NFL throws”... yet pic.twitter.com/dEMnJcIlez
There is one aspect of Nix’s skill-set that can’t be understated when looking at the outlook of his sophomore season, and that is his natural fit in Malzahn’s offense. Heavy on read option type plays, run-pass option schemes and even designed quarterback runs, Nix’s swift feet makes him a natural fit. His ability to pull the ball from the read and make snap throws is special, and leads to easy completions. As far as operating the system goes, Nix was born to play in this offense.
Bo Nix’s skill-set is a natural fit in Gus Malzahn’s offensive system— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) May 11, 2020
▪️Athleticism and quickness for read option, RPO and QB run game
▪️Snap release and can change his arm slot to deliver passes around read keys
▪️Takes advantage of his quick game hots and outlets pic.twitter.com/F5ucTbw8I3
Just like every true freshman starting quarterback that has come before Nix, there were questionable and indefensible decisions on his film. Those come with the decision to start a young player at the most important position and in the best conference in college football, and should naturally decrease as Nix gains experience.
It’s easy to see Nix’s talent when evaluating his film, but you could argue that his shortcomings held back the Auburn offense in some of their more high profile matchups last season. However, he’s a lot closer to stardom than I realized before diving deep into his game. Nothing that prevented production last season was the result of physical limitations, and only minor improvements in his footwork will make him a more consistent passer.
With a strong returning wide receiver corps next season that features NFL prospects Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, as well as one of the best running games in the country, Nix has ideal surroundings for a step forward.
There is first team All-SEC potential with Nix in 2020.