TJ Finley, Zach Calzada, and Robby Ashford remain in competition to be Auburn’s starting quarterback for second-year coach Bryan Harsin and first-year offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau.
Quarterback battles can galvanize a team if the right signal-caller emerges from the fray. Picking the wrong quarterback could crash a team’s hopes quicker than ice cream melting on a sidewalk.
There’s been a lot of input from pundits and fans on who should be the starter when the Tigers open the season on September 3rd against Mercer at 6 pm CT on ESPN +. Harsin hasn’t revealed a starter yet, but he’s dropped a few hints about which quarterback could win the job.
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“TJ’s got a coach’s mentality. He sees things out there,” Harsin told reporters Saturday after practice at Jordan-Hare. “Not everybody conceptually picks things up very quickly. It takes a little bit of time. He’s got that mentality. Some guys have it. It takes some time for others, and you’ll figure it out.”
Defensive tackle Marcus Harris noticed Finley’s development from last season through fall camp.
“You can see like when the defensive line’s almost there he gets it out real quick before we can get to him and like it’s an improvement from last year because last year he’d take a sack or sit and throw the ball out or something, but he finds the open receiver when the play seems to break down he’ll throw the ball and get it there,” Harris told reporters. “He also got better at getting out of the pocket, too. He’ll take off running, which surprised us a couple of times; he’s getting better with that.”
Ja’Varrius Johnson will likely be one of the Tiger’s starting receivers. He’s caught passes from each quarterback while noticing differences between the three. Finley is 6′7 with a high arm angle. Calzada is 6′4. Ashford is 6′3 with the bonus of elite speed as a runner.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Johnson said about his role as a receiver in the quarterback competition. “You get a chance to get catches from all kinds of quarterbacks; they all have different throwing styles and stuff, so i think it’s cool to catch balls from three players. You learn a lot from each of them, too, because they’re different. I think it’s pretty cool.”
Johnson complimented Finley’s maturity. He was also one of many players impressed by Ashford’s elusiveness in the pocket.
“Knowing that either he’s going to run the ball or he’s going to throw it, more likely he’s going to run it,” Johnson said. “But he can throw it too, so it’s more than just finding open holes because he can outrun some of the defenders. So, finding somewhere to get open, and he’ll throw it to you.”
Finley has the most experience playing at Auburn under Harsin’s system. He wasn’t in a comfortable position with the Tigers bringing in two quarterbacks to compete for a spot he believes he deserves. However, if he becomes the starter, it’ll be as much about how he handled the challenge mentally as anything he could do from a physical perspective.
“The funny thing was when we started practicing, and then we put another quarterback with the first team — that got him. Because that hit home, it was like, ‘Ooh, I’m not taking these reps. I’m not with the ones. This guy is going to get a chance.’ So I think what that did, though, as he was a little upset at first. We had to talk through it a little bit,” Kiesau told reporters. “Once he got through that, and he understood it’s all about competition and being the best guy on the field that will make us better, he embraced it. It was a lot better. Initial shock at first, but then he got better through it.”
Calzada has lots of experience playing in the conference at Texas A&M. Harris remembered playing against Calzada last season. Calzada has shown several traits that attracted Harsin to recruit him from College Station to the Plains.
“Playing him in the game, we’re trying to get after him. Now he’s our teammate, and he’s been a great teammate,” Harris told reporters. He has walked in on us, opened up to us, and shared some of his thoughts and experience with us. It’s helping us be a better D-line and a better team. Playing against him, when a play breaks down, he’ll always find a way to get outside the pocket and throw it away instead of taking the sack.”
Harsin’s decision on a quarterback this season could be the most important he’ll make. With a little over a week left before the season starts, one could see the wait as neither quarterback taking the reigns. An optimistic person could see it as a difficult choice because each Ashford, Calzada, and Finley make it difficult because of their dynamic abilities.
Who’s right? We know until football season gets rolling. Here’s how EDGE rusher Eku Leota sees the situation, which could mirror the team’s opinions.
It’s a tough decision. I can see why it’s a hard decision because all of them have their strengths. TJ was good,” Leota said. Robbie was good. Zach has been good as well. He’s coming along. Each quarterback brings a different element to the game.”