AUBURN — It might have been difficult for Auburn football fans to resist the “what-if” urge prompted by a former quarterback’s narrative leading up to the 2022 NFL Draft.
Malik Willis was the elephant in the room, Auburn’s third-string turned Liberty’s glittering pro prospect. Experts knighted Willis as the best quarterback in a weak draft class. Meanwhile, Auburn had zero offensive players chosen.
Yes, that Willis fodder was tempting. Especially for those embittered by how things ended with Bo Nix, Auburn’s chosen one in 2019 and a three-year starter who transferred to Oregon last December (when Willis was already long gone). What if Gus Malzahn chose Willis over Nix as the starter?
Don’t take the bait. As current Auburn coach Bryan Harsin says, quarterbacks get too much credit and too much blame. More true than ever in this draft cycle. A three-year-old quarterback decision was Auburn’s McGuffin.
Here’s what you should be paying attention to.
Auburn’s one player drafted was 13th in the SEC. (And does Vanderbilt really count?)
From 2018-20, Auburn was among the top five SEC teams in players drafted. In 2021, it dropped to seventh. Now this 2022 draft class is Auburn’s third consecutive regression relative to other SEC schools.
Producing professional talent leads to better college recruiting. It’s not rocket science, but if you need evidence, see Bruce Pearl’s Auburn basketball program. He’s developing lottery picks into Kevin Durant comps; North Carolina outcasts into first-rounders.
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So to broaden the cause-and-effect slightly: Proven player development leads to strong recruiting. Leave ’em better than you found ’em. Harsin faces an uphill battle right now with the regressing draft numbers, and after the No. 8 signing class in the SEC, he has little choice but to hang his hat on development.
Auburn’s lone draft pick should be name-dropped during every home visit. Roger McCreary started as a three-star recruit and ended at No. 35 overall to the Tennessee Titans. Sure, Harsin’s staff was only responsible for McCreary’s last year — but this was the year that McCreary showed his versatility between man and zone, the year he became college football’s best cover cornerback.
Next Harsin needs more examples like McCreary, but on offense. All those senior linemen who decided to return? Watch where they land in mocks. Up to seven will be draft-eligible.
And of course, Harsin’s second season will test his chops as a developer of quarterbacks, his former position. After Nix comes a fresh slate, and Harsin gets his pick between T.J. Finley, Robby Ashford and Zach Calzada.
Another three-way battle and a big choice, like Malzahn’s to ride Nix over Willis and Joey Gatewood.
Willis admitted during the draft process that “I was so immature” during his early days at Auburn. He didn’t like watching film. He wasn’t ready to start.
Malzahn didn’t misjudge, and the Tigers weren’t worse because Nix started. They won the Iron Bowl.
Again, the what-ifs are fun, but they miss the big idea.
Auburn’s draft numbers are an ongoing downward trend. One spring quarterback decision wasn’t Malzahn’s downfall. But having just one 2022 draft pick can be attributed to his tenure.
If there’s a way this works in Harsin’s favor, it’s this: At least Auburn’s professional talent level was consistent with its 2021 record (6-7). Not all SEC programs can say that. LSU finished below Auburn in the West but startlingly had 10 draft picks.
This season, a greater fraction of the roster will be players brought in by Harsin. He’ll be more accountable for the development that dictates these numbers going forward.
Maybe it starts with moments like a starting quarterback decision, but it doesn’t end there.