AUBURN, Ala. — He was in there somewhere, sitting on a small plastic chair in the center of the room, surrounded by a horde of reporters clamoring for whatever postgame nuggets they could scrounge up before deadline. The star quarterback, the son of an Auburn legend and a true freshman beyond his years, all in one.
Bo Nix was one of the last Auburn players to enter the media center inside Jordan-Hare Stadium following the Tigers’ 55-16 win over Kent State on Saturday night, and when he did so, it was as if every other conversation taking place no longer mattered. Anthony Schwartz, who somehow managed to play receiver with a cast on his hand, was abandoned almost immediately. Kam Martin, who rushed for his first touchdown of the season, suddenly found himself standing at a podium with only one reporter by his side.
While it’s not unusual for a starting quarterback to be swarmed by the media after a game, the intrigue surrounding Nix at Auburn goes deeper than most. The silver-haired reporters here, who used to file stories about his father, never thought they’d see another Nix quarterback the Tigers, and there are times when the story feels too good to be true. How many years ago was it that Patrick Nix replaced an injured Stan White in the third quarter of the 1993 Iron Bowl with Auburn trailing Alabama 14-5? What happened next built the Nix mythos: Patrick dropped back and heaved a 35-yard touchdown to Frank Sanders that sparked a come-from-behind win and closed out an undefeated season.
It’s 26 years later, three games into the young season, and already the second-generation QB has his own version. It came during the season-opening game against No. 11 Oregon when Auburn trailed 21-20 with 15 seconds left. Bo took the shotgun snap and rather than playing it safe and settling for a manageable field goal, he lobbed a game-winning, 26-yard touchdown pass down the sideline to Seth Williams. Afterward, Nix told reporters, “I think that’s my first Bo-to-Seth moment.”
While Nix can be wary in front of a wall of cameras, looking down at his feet nervously, there’s no denying how he commands a room. His confidence can’t help but shine through. Beating Kent State to improve to 3-0 was great and all, but he kept pointing to improvements he has to make with games like the one Saturday coming up — going on the road to play No. 17 Texas A&M. It wasn’t hard for him to get over the jubilation of the Oregon win, he said, because “I know it’s a long season, and I didn’t play that great.”
That maturity is something his teammates point to over and over again as they attempt to explain how this isn’t a typical true freshman quarterback.
Schwartz was seated in the corner of the media center, left alone in the wake of Nix’s arrival, when a reporter asked for his read on the situation.
“You’d think usually a true freshman would panic,” Schwartz said. “But he doesn’t panic. … I’m pretty sure everyone has said it, but I’m here to confirm he doesn’t look like a freshman.”
Schwartz said he first noticed that unusual poise during fall camp scrimmages. In live action, when most freshmen are shell-shocked by the speed of the game, Nix appeared unfazed, even as he faced one of the best defenses in the country. He hung in the pocket — “throwing dimes,” Schwartz recalled — and excelled during the pressure-packed two-minute drill.
“He was just very composed,” Schwartz said. “It was like, ‘Wow.'”
That turned out to be a familiar refrain among teammates. If they couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when they realized their quarterback’s maturity, it was only because he showed up to Auburn that way. Junior receiver Eli Stove said it’s as if Nix is in his fourth year already.
And while college football is littered with overeager rookies who try to take charge of the locker room only to get put back in their place by grizzled veterans, Nix is an exception. Senior offensive lineman Marquel Harrell made no bones about it: “That’s my quarterback. Whatever he says goes.”
Harrell said there’s something special about the way Nix carries himself — the way he walks and the way he talks to guys. He gets a little new agey talking about it.
“He’s a bright soul, man,” Harrell said. “He was a natural leader.”
Martin, for his part, is more of a bottom-line guy when he is asked about Nix.
“Bo’s a winner, man,” Martin said. “Just from the start, the beginning of fall camp, he had it in him.”
But the pressure. We have to talk about the pressure.
Nix hasn’t copped to feeling any of it — and why would he? — but Tigers coach Gus Malzahn did acknowledge the pressure his quarterback faces during a quiet moment on Sunday night. “You definitely have to think about everything that goes with it,” Malzahn told ESPN.
On the one hand, no one has a better resource for understanding what it means to be Auburn’s starting quarterback than Nix. But on the other hand, it’s a lot to live up to. His father’s legacy only compounds what would have been sky-high expectations to begin with.
Remember, Nix came to Auburn as one of the most decorated high school quarterbacks the state of Alabama has ever seen, having won two state titles and setting records with more than 12,000 total career yards of offense and 161 total touchdowns. He was the No. 2-rated pocket passer in the entire Class of 2019, according to ESPN. It was such that former Auburn Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton invited him to play on his seven-on-seven team.
People have been known to connect dots that are much less obvious than those. Anything less than becoming the first Auburn true freshman to start in a season opener since 1946 would have been viewed as a disappointment.
It didn’t help that before the Oregon game, former Florida Heisman winner Tim Tebow went on TV and said that Nix had the chance to be a superstar. And then he went even further. “God made him for Gus Malzahn’s offense,” Tebow said.
Malzahn smirked at that, but he wasn’t going to contradict Tebow. The way Nix handled himself in the second-half comeback against Oregon, Malzahn said, showed “he’s got enough courage to make the play at the end of the game to win it.”
“Definitely you get concerned about making sure that it’s not like that,” Malzahn said of the pressure possibly becoming too much. “But so far, so good.”
While Nix hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire post-Oregon — he enters the weekend completing 52.4% of his passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions — the numbers don’t tell the full story. It has been “musical chairs” at receiver, Malzahn said. Williams, an All-SEC-caliber player, has been sidelined by injury, and Schwartz obviously isn’t 100 percent with a cast on his hand. Against Kent State, JaTarvious Whitlow dropped an easy would-be touchdown pass and Will Hastings dropped another pass that would have been a first down.
But what looms larger is the inconsistent offensive line play. As a result, Nix has attempted more passes outside the pocket (22) than any quarterback in the SEC, and he has been pressured on 29.2% of his dropbacks — as compared to, say, Georgia’s Jake Fromm, who has been pressured 14% of the time.
In fact, Nix’s less-than-stellar completion percentage would be much higher if it didn’t factor in all the times he has intentionally thrown the ball away to avoid sacks — something Malzahn loves and something Nix’s predecessor, Jarrett Stidham, was guilty of not doing more of.
What’s more, unlike Stidham, Nix has proved to be a willing and effective runner. Against Kent State, Nix rushed for his first touchdown of what promises to be many. And while he isn’t going to be confused with Lamar Jackson, Nix’s ability to make plays with his legs adds a dimension to Auburn’s offense that has been missing since Nick Marshall left school five years ago.
Nix, for his part, says the game is slowing down and he is becoming more comfortable executing in the offense. After his rushing touchdown on Saturday, he came to the sideline where a visibly frustrated Malzahn hammered home how the signal-caller should have read the play differently. What might have seemed over the top from the outside was fine by Nix, though, who kept his cool and said afterward that what works against Kent State might not work against the big boys of the SEC.
“Obviously, I’m going to continue to learn and adapt to certain things,” Nix said, “but I feel like I’m in a good spot right now.”
His coach certainly agrees.
“He has a chance to be really special,” Malzahn said.
If Malzahn has learned anything about his young quarterback through three games, it is how much of a competitor he is. And it’s that poise under pressure, which everyone saw on full display against Oregon, that has Malzahn believing a potentially daunting trip to the home of the 12th man at Texas A&M won’t be Nix’s undoing.
In so many ways, this is exactly what Nix was built for. His father taught him, “Never let the moment get too big,” and he hasn’t yet.
“One thing I know,” Malzahn said, “he’s going to fight for Auburn.”