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SportAuburn spring football storylines: All eyes on Tigers' QB battle with Gus Malzahn's future at stake

20:41  11 april  2019
20:41  11 april  2019 Source:   cbssports.com

Auburn’s Chuma Okeke has torn ACL, will undergo surgery

Auburn’s Chuma Okeke has torn ACL, will undergo surgery The injury news on Chuma Okeke is as bad as feared. Okeke underwent an MRI on Saturday after injuring his left leg in the second half of Auburn’s upset over North Carolina on Friday. The exam showed a torn ACL for the Tigers forward. The Athletic’s Shams Charania, who reported the news on Okeke, says the sophomore will undergo surgery on Tuesday. Surgery on Tuesday for Okeke, sources said. Auburn faces Kentucky in the Elite 8 on Sunday. https://t.co/CQUP65ywsj — Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) March 30, 2019 Okeke had been playing well since the finals of the SEC Tournament.

Auburn spring football storylines: All eyes on Tigers' QB battle with Gus Malzahn's future at stake© Provided by CBS Interactive Inc.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn signed a seven-year, $49 million contract after a 2017 season in which the Tigers won the SEC West, lost a de facto national quarterfinal to Georgia in the SEC Championship Game and earned a berth in a New Year's Six bowl. The return on Auburn's investment he provided in Year 1 of the new deal didn't exactly give fans and administrators the feeling he was worth the investment.

The Tigers' offense regressed, quarterback Jarrett Stidham was a deer in headlights under pressure and the ninth-ranked team in the preseason AP Top 25 poll sputtered to a 7-5 regular season record. Stidham is gone, Malzahn is back to calling plays and the Tigers are in search of an offense that is an asset, not a liability. The progress of that quest will be blasted out to the world on national television on Saturday, when the Tigers take the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium for the annual spring game.

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Malzahn better fix things in a hurry, because another year of offensive ineptitude from the coach who wrote the book -- literally -- on the hurry-up, no-huddle offense will likely earn him a pink slip no matter how high the price tag is. No seriously, you can buy "The Hurry Up No Huddle: An Offensive Philosophy" on Amazon right now.

It sounds simplistic, but it really does start with the quarterback. Redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood got a cup of coffee late in the Music City Bowl win over Purdue, and entered spring as the front-runner to win the job formerly occupied by Stidham. The 6-foot-5, 237-pounder has the size to bring more of the Cam Newton-power style to the quarterback running game, and needs to prove that he can do enough in the passing game to make the offense click.

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"You can tell he's comfortable with the ball in his hand," former Tiger linebacker Deshaun Davis said at the end of last season, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. "He trusts his receivers in one-on-one situations. He's a good running quarterback. He's faster than I thought he was, actually. I know he's going to surprise a lot of other people. He's not going down in the pocket easily. I don't know if it's because of the guys that are trying to tackle him or what, but when he's standing back in the pocket, he's a big guy to bring down."

High praise, but he'll have to fend off a former blue-chip prospect to earn the top spot on the depth chart. Bo Nix, a 6-foot-2, 204-pound five-star prospect in the class of 2019, enrolled in school in January with early playing time in mind. The son of former Auburn signal-caller Patrick Nix, was the top dual-threat quarterback in his class, and the No. 33 player overall. While he doesn't have the running ability of Gatewood, his upside in the passing game will likely eliminate the possibility of a redshirt in his first season on the Plains.

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Junior Malik Willis has seen action over the last two seasons in mop-up and running situations, while freshman Cord Sandberg took a few snaps before redshirting last year. By all accounts, they are trailing Gatewood and Nix in the four-man race.

Whoever wins the job better be ready, because the Tigers plan to return to ludicrous speed after finishing 81st in the country in plays in 2019 with 70.2 per game.

"Yeah, we're going to try and be a little more versatile as far as spring goes," Malzahn said in late March. "So, we'll see kind of where that goes, but we want to play as fast as we can."

It's the biggest decision of Malzahn's career. Pinpoint the right guy, and all will be well. Swing and miss, and calls for his dismissal -- which popped up toward the end of last season -- will reach a crescendo that will put enormous pressure on athletic director Allen Greene.

This isn't a normal quarterback battle. It's the most interesting position battle in college football in 2019, and Malzahn can't mess around when it comes to making a decision. Because of that, expect to see plenty of the playbook unveiled when the Tigers hit the field on Saturday.

After all, his own job depends on it.

Related slideshow: Ranking the top recruiting classes (Provided by USA TODAY Sports)

Auburn spring football storylines: All eyes on Tigers' QB battle with Gus Malzahn's future at stake
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