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DUAL-THREAT: Bo Nix’s running in option game ‘opens up’ Auburn’s offense
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DUAL-THREAT: Bo Nix’s running in option game ‘opens up’ Auburn’s offense

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Bo Nix let his reflexes act on his training — from hours of watching film, from weeks of running drills out on the high school practice field, and maybe even from some quiet study looking up at a whiteboard scrawled with X’s and O’s hand-drawn by his dad — all in the blink of an eye.

One blink later, Auburn’s freshman quarterback was peeling out into open field under the lights in Jordan-Hare Stadium, and his Tigers were on their way to a touchdown last Saturday against Kent State.

Nix showed some more of his running ability in Auburn’s homecoming win then, on the team’s way to its SEC opener at Texas A&M this Saturday — and better yet still, he showed more of that lightning-quick decision-making which will help the Tigers’ rushing attack in this Saturday’s first conference game and beyond.

Nix is in sync with his running backs and making successful option reads already in his career, adding an old weapon back to Gus Malzahn’s arsenal at Auburn, and giving the Tigers one more way to attack opposing defenses.

“It opens up the offense,” running back Shaun Shivers put it simply, after the Tigers rolled up 467 rushing yards against Kent State.

Nix played his part in that.

He peeled off runs of 17 yards and 18 yards on Auburn’s first offensive series last Saturday, both on consecutive plays just before JaTarvious Whitlow punched in a 3-yard touchdown and put Auburn up early.

All three of those plays were clear-cut and obvious examples of the read-option run — something Nix mastered well before arriving at Auburn, and before he was touted as one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback prospects coming out of high school.

On each of those plays, Nix ‘meshed’ with Whitlow, putting the ball into his running back’s stomach in position to hand it off, and as he did ‘read’ a chosen Kent State defender, then used his option to either give the ball Whitlow or pull it out from Whitlow’s stomach and keep it on a run to the outside.

On those plays, Whitlow charges into the line on an inside running lane. Nix eyes an outside running lane. The offensive line left a Kent State defensive end unblocked, and when the defender crashed toward that inside lane to attack Whitlow’s path, Nix pulled the ball and raced outside for those gains of 17 and 18 yards — the second of which pushed Auburn down to the 3-yard line.

Then next play, as a Kent State defender adjusted and hung outside fearing another Nix keeper, Nix gave the ball up and Whitlow used Auburn’s blocking advantage to score.

It’s become a simple concept as football continues to evolve. But with Nix in the game, Auburn now has the chance to lean more on the option run than it has in the past two years with pocket-passer Jarrett Stidham in the backfield and former offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey calling the plays, and to look a bit more like the option-powered offense Nick Marshall captained at Auburn with Malzahn calling the plays from 2013-14.

“You’ve got to worry about Bo and you’ve got to worry about whoever the running back is. Because if you don’t — if you just worry about one — that’s when Bo could pull it and take off how he did today,” Shivers said under Jordan-Hare, just moments after that win over Kent State. Shivers and Whitlow both topped 100 yards against the Golden Flashes.

Nix rushed for 40 yards, discounting the 19 yards taken from his total by sacks.

He had the opportunity to show more of his running ability in the homecoming game, but the threat has been there since the opener. Oregon and Tulane both played outside more than Kent State, Auburn’s players agreed, taking away Nix’s outside running lane on those plays — but freeing up that inside running lane that much more thanks to Nix’s presence alone. He ripped of a 19-yard keeper against Oregon in the opener, but after that play, Malzahn said the Ducks adjusted to take that away. It doesn’t show up in Nix’s stat sheet, but he forced the defense to adjust and from that point on helped out his team’s running game even on plays where he didn’t carry the ball.

“The other night, they were just happening to squeeze, and I could get out there and nobody was really containing the quarterback,” Nix said Sunday, looking back to the Kent State game. “Sometimes, they won’t squeeze, so you end up giving the ball.

“The more I play, and the more I get comfortable, I think I’ll be more efficient of a runner.”

Nix sat in the athletics complex then, speaking as the team turned the page to Saturday’s game against Texas A&M. The mesh isn’t unique to Auburn’s offense and is common in high school playbooks across the country, but Nix admitted he’s gotten more comfortable in each of the first three starts of his college career, especially considering how much quicker he has to make that read in the midst of a faster speed of play at the college level.

He also said, growing up the son of his father, former Auburn quarterback Patrick Nix, he watched plenty of Marshall’s read-option runs on the Plains.

Marshall rolled up 1,976 passing yards and 1,068 rushing yards in helping lead Auburn to the BCS National Championship Game during the 2013 season. He threw for 2,532 yards and ran for 798 more yards during his senior season in 2014.

Nix looked up to Marshall. He said Marshall was a special player, and underrated as a passer. What he may not have known is that, in the same room Nix sat in, back in 2013, Marshall said it wasn’t until the fifth game of the year against Ole Miss that the read option at Auburn ‘clicked’ at full speed for him — and it was from there that it became college football’s most powerful play that season and Auburn ran up a nation-leading 328.28 rushing yards per game.

Nix has already shown his comfort with the mesh read in 2019.

“The first few games, I believe the second game, there were a few I could’ve read differently,” Nix said. “But overall, I’ve done a pretty good job of reading things and making sure the ball goes where it needs to go.”

His teammates have seen the same.

“It just goes to show, man, he’s growing and getting better each and every week,” senior offensive lineman Marquel Harrell said after the Kent State game. “The reads that he pulled it on, he did a really great job. I’m proud of Bo.

“For him to be able to come in and pull the ball when he’s supposed to, it just shows the level of growth that he has,” he added.

With a few more steps forward, Auburn should be racing its way to more rushing yards this season.

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