Bryan Harsin remained coy Thursday evening about when Auburn plans to announce its starting quarterback for its season opener, but he did make one guarantee to fans gathered at the Jordan-Hare Stadium recruiting lounge prior to his appearance on the “Tiger Talk” radio show.
“We will have one,” Harsin said, “and I’ve been saying that.”
The timeline for Auburn naming a starter and bringing a close to its offseason-long quarterback competition remains fluid, but Harsin again provided an update on the progress of each of the three contenders: TJ Finley, Oregon transfer Robby Ashford and Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada .
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Finley, as has been the case the last week when speaking with Harsin and offensive coordinator Eric Kiesau, what the first quarterback Harsin mentioned by name when asked about the position Thursday. Finley, the lone returning quarterback from last year’s team, has been atop the pecking order throughout the preseason, receiving the most first-team reps during drills at the portions of practice that have been open to the media.
The former LSU transfer started the final three games of the season for Auburn last year after Bo Nix sustained a season-ending ankle injury, and while his numbers did not pop out—and while Auburn lost each of those three games—Harsin continues to be pleased with the 6-foot-7 junior’s development since his arrival on the Plains.
“I feel like from his time last year through what he learned playing, to where he went into the spring, just as far as his development into the summer and then where we are right now, I think he’s got good command,” Harsin said . “He’s done a good job of really understanding what we’re doing.”
That command and understanding of the offense—a benefit of being in his second year of the system—had helped Finley set himself apart from the competition this preseason. Harsin said last weekend that “operation” of the offense was the No. 1 characteristic he was looking for from the quarterback position this preseason. Finley has displayed that, along with improved accuracy and ability to extend plays.
While Finley certainly seems the favorite to be named Auburn’s starter, Ashford has closed the gap in recent weeks. The Tigers’ A-Day offensive MVP has put together a strong preseason, and his growth as a passer has impressed coaches. Ashford has been second in the rotation during drills the last couple of weeks, and he has even rotated with Finley for work with the first-team offense during practice.
“Robby Ashford has really come on, and I like where he is at,” Harsin said. “So, it took a little more time, but (he) also hadn’t played in the system. Came in in the spring, had a chance to work through things in the summer and has picked up quite a bit and really has played well the last couple weeks of camp. So, I feel good about where he’s at.”
Then there’s Calzada, who boasts the most starting experience among the quarterbacks. He started 10 games for Texas A&M last season, including a win against Alabama in which he had the best game of his career. Calzada was presumed by many this offseason to be the favorite to take over the starting job at Auburn, but his progress coming off a non-throwing shoulder injury that he sustained — oddly enough — against the Tigers last season and that limited him in the spring has taken longer than expected.
Calzada has firmly been the No. 3 quarterback in the rotation during practices, and during last Saturday’s practice that was fully open to the media, he was the only one of the three contenders who did not take a rep with the first-team offense.
Consistency has been the biggest thing for Calzada this preseason, according to Kiesau, and Harsin disclosed Thursday that the junior also “had a few things in the summer that kept him out a little bit of time.”
“He’s making up a lot of stuff that he missed during that time,” Harsin said. “…So, he’s really catching up, and I thought today — every day is an opportunity for these guys to keep competing, but I thought he had a really good practice today.”
As for when a starting quarterback could be announced, Harsin plans to get through practice Friday and Saturday before further evaluation of all three quarterbacks heading into Week 1. Auburn opens the season next Saturday at home against Mercer, with kickoff set for 6 pm
“Then we’ll make our decision when we need to make it, but all those guys know where we are,” Harsin said. “We’ve had those conversations with our players, and we’ve had those conversations with our guys. We want to make sure that for us as a team, the things we need to do, that really matters as far as timing goes with us on when we want to do it. We’ll see where we are at the end of this week and then see what it looks like going into next week.
“At the end of the day, we got to get ready for Mercer, and we want to make sure that our guy’s prepared for that. We get the plan, and we got the guys getting reps that need to get reps, and we’ll be ready to play Saturday, Sept. 3.”
Tom Green is an Auburn beat reporter for Alabama Media Group. Follow him on Twitter @Tomas_Verde.