The Rise of College Football's Next Great QB

Bo Nix understood route concepts by the time he was in third grade and was starting for his high school team by eighth grade. Now a freshman at Auburn, he's poised to become the next elite college QB.
photo of Lars AndersonLars AndersonSenior WriterOctober 25, 2019

The young quarterback walked out of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, on Oct. 5, and into the warm autumn day, his head down, his mind racing. Over and over, on the grainy film of memory, he replayed the day's missed throws, missed reads and missed opportunities. He couldn't let go.     

Outfitted in a blue blazer and an orange tie, he continued to stroll through the growing late-afternoon shadows outside the stadium. Bo Nix was only a month removed from becoming the first true freshman to start the season at quarterback for Auburn since Travis Tidwell in 1946, and he had already achieved folk-hero status at Auburn after throwing a 26-yard touchdown pass to Seth Williams with nine seconds left to lead the Tigers to a 27-21 season-opening win over No. 11 Oregon. But on this day, he had authored the worst game of his just-beginning college career in Auburn's 24-13 loss to Florida. He threw three interceptions and completed just 11 of 27 passes for 145 yards. He looked, well, like a true freshman making his sixth career start against one of the top defenses in the nation in one of the loudest stadiums in the land. 

Outside the Swamp, the 19-year-old silently moved past Tigers fans taking pictures of him and the what-the-heck-just-happened look carved onto his face. He stepped onto the idling team bus, taking a seat next to senior wide receiver Will Hastings, his roommate on road trips. Hastings glanced at his phone and saw that Nix was trending on Twitter—and not because he was the second coming of Cam Newton, who is Bo's football idol.

Nix gazed out the window, shaking his head. "How could I play like that?" he said to Hastings. "How could I make all those mistakes?"

"Let's not talk about the game," Hastings replied. "When I get down, I look at old pictures on my phone. They make me laugh.

"I know you want to talk ball 24/7, but take a look at your old pictures."

As the team busses rolled through darkening Florida evening toward the local airport, Nix pulled out his phone and lost himself in memories of his childhood. The pictures he stared at revealed the story of his rise—a narrative in images of why young Bo Nix, in spite of his struggles against the Gators, is poised to become one of the next elite quarterbacks in college football.

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 31:  Bo Nix #10 of the Auburn Tigers during the Advocare Classic at AT&T Stadium on August 31, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Baby Bo wasn't interested in watching cartoons or playing with Legos. "Bo basically came out of the womb wanting a ball in his hands," says Patrick Nix, Bo's father, who played quarterback at Auburn from 1992 to '95. "The only time he watched television was when we put in old videos of football games. He wanted to play ball, watch ball and talk ball as a kid—that's it."

When Patrick was the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech from 2002 to '06, he painted a football field in the backyard of the family home outside of Atlanta. On autumn weekend mornings, Little Bo would put on an Auburn uniform with full pads, place wristbands on his arms, and act like he was the Tigers starting quarterback, throwing passes to his father, mother and his three siblings.

Even then, Patrick marveled at his son's hand-eye coordination and the way the ball so effortlessly spiraled out of his right hand. In the backyard, the father taught his boy basic throwing mechanics, such as making sure his release was textbook-perfect and that his left foot was always aimed at his target. At night, Little Bo would stand in front of a mirror and pretend he was throwing a football, trying to emulate the college and pro quarterbacks he saw—strike that, studied—on television.

During some Georgia Tech practices, Bo would stand on the sideline, his eyes usually locked onto the quarterbacks, watching them closely, analyzing their every movement, every pass, how they carried out fake handoffs, even the way they interacted with their teammates. "Bo has been around football so much that he knew how to spot balls [after plays] on the left hash and the right hash on the correct yard marker even before he could count," Patrick says. "My dad was coaching high school [in Alabama] when Bo was little, and he was often at his practices and games, just watching and taking it all in. He was exposed to a lot at a very young age."

In 2009, after losing his job as the offensive coordinator at Miami, Patrick coached Bo's third-grade flag football team. At the kitchen table after dinner, Bo would help his dad install the game plan, telling him which plays he liked as the starting quarterback, which plays he didn't and why certain plays would work against the defense they were about to face. "Bo understood spacing and concepts of routes, like running high-lows, even when he was in flag football," Patrick says. "We threw the ball around a lot in our games, and he had success. He was doing things differently than other kids. That was when I knew, if he kept growing and improving, he had a chance to be special."

Before Bo began the fifth grade, Patrick took a job as the wide receivers coach at Charleston Southern in North Charleston, South Carolina. Bo spent the summer working out with the Buccaneer players. He threw passes to defensive backs during drills and listened intently with the other quarterbacks on the roster when they were being taught different protection schemes. He ran all the conditioning drills—and always became red-faced upset when he didn't win a particular contest. "I had to remind him that he was going against college players," Patrick says. "But Bo didn't care. He thought he should win every drill."

In the eighth grade, Bo became the starting varsity quarterback at Scottsboro (Alabama) High School, where his father became the head coach in 2013. Bo had grown to especially love the freewheeling, sandlot styles of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Clemson's Deshaun Watson, and he already had an uncanny knack for locating—pre-snap—where the most vulnerable spot on the defense would be once the ball was in hands. By 10th grade, operating a run-pass option offense that is similar to what Auburn uses today, Bo could read the movements of defensive ends and linebackers at the same time—the key to making an RPO-based offense hum. "When a quarterback can read multiple defenders and run a complex offense by getting everyone in the right spot and on the same page, everything begins to slow down for the quarterback," Patrick says. "It did with Bo."

And always—alllllwaaaaaaaays—Bo wanted to talk ball with his dad. He'd stay up late finishing his homework at the kitchen table, waiting for his dad to return home from the office. Then together, under a circle of light at the table, the two would review the game plan for the upcoming opponent, talking deep into the night about what plays might work in different down, distance and field-position situations. On Sundays, they'd spend afternoons together on the living room couch reviewing game film, discussing which plays succeeded, which ones failed, and what Bo needed to do better.

Football was Bo's everything—the air he breathed, the sun in his expanding universe.

"My dad is my hero, and I've always wanted to be like him," Bo says. "He never forced anything on me. There isn't anything about football I don't like. I can't ever get enough of it."

After his sophomore season, Bo transferred from Scottsboro to Pinson Valley High School—where his dad became head coach in 2017. There, he would become the state's all-time leader in total offense (12,497 yards), touchdowns accounted for (161) and would lead his team to two state titles. At 6'2", 207 pounds and still growing as a high school senior, he was widely regarded as the top-dual threat quarterback recruit in the country. 247Sports ranked him as a five-star prospect.

So, was it a slam dunk that he would attend Auburn, where Patrick had graduated in 1995 as the school's leader in passing efficiency and where his dad had met his mother, also an Auburn alumnus? "No, it wasn't," Bo says. "It really came down to Auburn and Ohio State."

Bo had grown close with Tigers coach Gus Malzahn, who began recruiting him when he was in the eighth grade. "I watched him practice, watched him in basketball games, and what really stuck out were his physical ability and the intangible things like leadership," Malzahn says. "He had such great mental focus, and he treated every practice like it was the most important practice of his life. And being the son of a quarterback and a coach, he just knew how to handle himself with the other players. It's something that can be very hard to teach, but he just had the 'it' factor in terms of leadership. That is as important for a quarterback as the skill set, which he clearly had."

On Dec. 3, 2017—just as Nix was deciding between Auburn and Ohio State—Malzahn signed a seven-year, $49 million contract extension, which at the time was ridiculed as shortsighted by many Auburn fans. But it was no coincidence that five weeks later, Auburn landed the commitment of the highest-rated quarterback recruit of the Malzahn era. "The contract extension was the final straw and was what really caused Bo to go all-in and commit to Auburn," Patrick says. "His mom and I didn't know what he was going to do. We were already talking about possibly moving to be closer to Ohio State. But the new contract for Coach Malzahn sealed the deal in Bo's mind."

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 07: Head coach Gus Malzahn of the Auburn Tigers talks to quarterback Bo Nix #10 of the Auburn Tigers during their game against the Tulane Green Wave at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 7, 2019 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael C
Michael Chang/Getty Images

Nix enrolled at Auburn in January. Soon after he arrived on campus, he began texting wide receivers, asking them to run routes with him at the Tigers' indoor practice facility. One afternoon, Hastings and fellow receiver Tyler Stovall, a former Auburn holder on point-after attempts who was the oldest player (28) in the SEC in 2017, took Nix to a local Buffalo Wild Wings. On the menu: advice from elders. "You need to lead by example," Stovall told Nix. "Be a voice, but don't overpower people."

"Just don't step on guys' toes, and be yourself," Hastings told Nix. "Don't come in and be the dominant force as a true freshman. Tell guys you'll be throwing at a certain time, and tell them that you'd love to have them meet you there. It's hard for some guys to be led by a freshman, but you can do it."

Slowly, as Bo sent out more tactful texts to his wide receivers, tight ends and running backs, more and more players began showing up at his throwing sessions. He even organized a pitch-and-catch practice around midnight after the Auburn basketball team lost 63-62 to Virginia in the Final Four on April 6.

"Bo likes his receivers to be very precise in their routes," Hastings says. "I remember him telling me once after I ran a five-yard route, 'You know, that's supposed to be six yards.' I was like, 'Bo, I know. I've been here a while.' But that just shows you his attention to detail. It shows he cares. And it's because he cares so much that he began to win over all the older guys on the team."

Another thing Bo did after shortly after stepping onto campus: He asked questions—and more questions and yet more questions. "Most freshmen are so shy and even look a little scared once they get here, but not Bo," says Mike Horton, a senior offensive lineman. "He wanted to know where things were, what the schedule was, what plays I liked, what it was like to play at different stadiums, what the coaches were like, just on and on. The questions were nonstop. And he adjusted to college life so quick, and he became a leader of this team so fast. Never seen anything like it. It was almost like he had a cheat sheet for what to do."

In late August, after three weeks of preseason practices, Malzahn named Nix the starter over redshirt freshman quarterback Joey Gatewood.

"Patrick Nix was a big-moment quarterback, and it was like he passed that characteristic down to Bo," Malzahn says. "Nothing is too big for him.

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 07: Quarterback Bo Nix #10 of the Auburn Tigers prior to their game against the Tulane Green Wave at Jordan-Hare Stadium on September 7, 2019 in Auburn, Alabama. (Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images)
Michael Chang/Getty Images

"The sons of coaches are just different. He got the other players to rally around him in summer camp. He worked on developing relationships. The guys believed in him. And out on the field, he showed he had the ability to get the job done as a true freshman."

Nix's entire family was in the stands at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, for Bo's first start, against Oregon. As Patrick watched his boy warm up, his thoughts drifted back through the mists of time, back to the 2011 national championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium—the last time Auburn had faced Oregon. Patrick remembered how on that night in the Arizona desert, Bo had sat next to him in the stands wearing a Cam Newton jersey, about how his apple-cheeked boy had run down to the first row after Auburn beat Oregon 22-19 to slap hands and celebrate with the Tigers players, how his son had been a picture of pure happiness as they drove back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning. Yes, as Patrick continued to watch his son on the field in Arlington, he marveled at the many miles the two of them had traveled together. And now his boy was leading Patrick's beloved school—the father's wildest dreams never stretched so far. 

Sitting next to his own dad—Bo's grandfather—Patrick and the rest of the Nix clan watched intently as Bo floated his final pass of the evening into the arms of Williams for the winning score. Seeing his son later that night, Patrick told Bo that he was worried the Ducks' safety might have intercepted the pass. "No, Dad, I saw his eyes, and he was looking in the other direction," Bo said. "I knew we had the one-on-one matchup we wanted."

Four weeks later against Mississippi State, Bo passed for a season-high 335 yards and two touchdowns in a 56-23 win at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn. He also rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown. That evening, the height of his talents were on full display—the strong-armed throws into tight windows, the ruthless accuracy on timing routes, and the foot speed to outrun linebackers to reach the perimeter when he kept the ball on RPO plays. It was a tantalizing performance, a look at all the physical ingredients Nix possesses, a peek at all that he could become with a dash of more seasoning and a sprinkle of more experience.

An hour after the game, Bo joined his family at their traditional tailgating spot in one of the outer parking lots. With the stadium lights aglow in the dark distance, Bo mingled with younger cousins and reviewed what he saw on the field with his dad. What a moment this was, the father and son sitting next to each other on folding chairs, the stars twinkling above them in the clear Southern sky, just talking ball like they were back home at the kitchen table. These are the memories—forged in the quiet, in close quarters with his boy—that the father cherishes the most, not what happens on the field. 

Bo Nix is far from a polished quarterback. The nonstop, thundering crowd noise at the Swamp—"It was one of the two or three loudest road environments I've ever experienced," said one Auburn football staffer who has been with the team for more than two decades—made it difficult for Nix to communicate with his teammates, which in turn caused him to feel rushed as the time clock wound down, which in turn caused him to temporarily forget many of the lessons his father had taught him.

"I wasn't looking at my correct keys," Nix says. "On one play, for instance, when I was supposed to be reading the safety, I tried to read the safety and the linebacker and basically was just trying to do too much. And when you do that, when you try to see a lot on football field, you end up seeing too little. But I know I'll grow from the experience."

He indeed displayed growth last Saturday against Arkansas, bouncing back after a 4-for-9, 45-yard first half, to go 8-for-8 with 131 yards and touchdown passes of 48, 28 and 15 yards in the second half.

But don't forget that scene of Bo on the team bus after the Florida loss, scrolling through his phone, looking at all of those old pictures. You never know when a turning point for a young player will occur, but here, in the air-conditioned cool cabin, behind the tinted windows in a seat near the front, maybe it happened.

Because for a few fleeting moments, Nix put the performance against Florida out of his mind. For a few moments, he was just a 19-year-old kid again—happy and carefree and footloose. For a few moments, he smiled and remembered all of the games, the talks with his dad, the backyard throws, the boyhood summer workouts with college players and everything else that had led him to this seat on the bus as the starting quarterback of his favorite childhood team. That was when it dawned on him, a realization that can warm any wounded heart, an awareness that can lead to growth:

The best is yet to come.