The NCAA transfer portal’s impact and trickle-down effect on college football continues to amaze.
Auburn’s most significant off-season acquisition was Texas A&M transfer quarterback Zach Calzada, but he is not expected to play in the Tigers’ spring game Saturday (2 p.m. eastern, SEC Network +, ESPN +) as he recovers from off-season surgery on his left, non-throwing shoulder. He injured the shoulder in the third quarter of a 20-3 win over Auburn, interestingly, but returned to the game and finished 15-of-29 passing for 192 yards.
That loss started a five-game losing streak for Auburn that finished its season at 6-7 and nearly garnered first-year coach Bryan Harsin his transfer papers from Auburn’s various power brokers, following the program’s first losing season since 2012.
Harsin hung on, but disenchanted starting junior quarterback Bo Nix transferred to Oregon, despite his Auburn family legacy — his father Patrick Nix was Auburn’s starting quarterback in 1994 and ’95.
Harsin also had some interest in transferring to Oregon, which had an opening after last season when coach Mario Cristobal left to coach the Miami Hurricanes. Harsin, who left the Boise State head coaching job after seven seasons to go to Auburn, is from Boise, Idaho, which borders Oregon, and he was an assistant coach at Eastern Oregon. The job instead went to Dan Lanning, but Harsin did get Oregon freshman quarterback transfer Robby Ashford, who never played at Oregon. Basically, he traded a veteran quarterback for a draft choice.
With Calzada, who started 12 games for Texas A&M last year and threw for 2,185 yards and 17 touchdowns, out of action for the most part, Auburn junior T.J. Finley leads the quarterback race as spring practice ends. He transferred from LSU before the 2021 season and backed up Nix, completing 70 of 128 passes for 827 yards and six touchdowns.
“It’s not balanced. T.J. has gotten most of the reps,” Harsin said this week. “T.J. has played in the offense. I think he’s leading well. He’s got a good idea for what we’re trying to do. That operation piece is really critical – just running the offense from sideline to the field. There’s a way to operate when you’re in no huddle, huddle, all the different situations that come up.”
There was not a lot of operation offensively last season for Auburn during that five-game losing streak that ended the season. It was shut out over the final three quarters in the 20-3 loss at Texas A&M. It managed six points in the second half of a 43-34 loss to Mississippi State. South Carolina shut Auburn out in the fourth quarter of a 21-17 win. Alabama shut out Auburn in the fourth quarter of a 24-22 win in overtime, and Auburn again went scoreless in the fourth quarter of its 17-13 loss to Houston in the Birmingham Bowl.
The hope was Calzada could bring some spark to the offense. At A&M, he completed 21 of 31 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns in a 41-38 upset of No. 1 Alabama last season. Calzada threw a 25-yard touchdown pass with three minutes to go for a 38-38 tie before the Aggies won on a field goal as time elapsed. He finished the game on an injured leg.
Calzada has been doing as much as he can this spring while keeping the shoulder safe so he can compete full go for the job in August.
“He’s limited because we’re not putting him out there so he doesn’t get hit and reinjure that shoulder,” Harsin said. “He’s getting seven-on-seven. He’s getting as many controlled reps as we can possibly give him. I know he wants to be out there. He’s dying just standing back there and watching. He’s in the yellow jersey, and it’s killing him. He wants to go out there and play, and I know he can. He can throw the ball well. He’s learning in the film room. The summer’s going to be big for him, and fall camp is going to determine when he can get those reps.”
There is also freshman signee Holden Geriner, a three-star prospect from Savannah, Georgia who will be competing with Ashford for a reserve role.
Finley is ahead now, but he does not have the game experience of Calzada.
“T.J. is still a young player developing,” Harsin said. “He’s got a good handle on what we’re trying to get done with some of the checks. I think he’s seeing the defense well, and now it’s just going out there and making plays, throwing accurately, making the right read and being able to handle the different pressures.”
The key at Auburn in 2022 for Finley, Calzada and particularly Harsin will be handling various pressures.
SEC SPRING FOOTBALL GAME TV SCHEDULE (All times eastern):
Kentucky, 1 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
Tennessee, 1 p.m.*
Auburn, 2 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
Texas A&M, 2 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
Florida, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
Arkansas, Noon, SEC Network +, ESPN +
Mississippi State, Noon, SEC Network +, ESPN +
Georgia, 1 p.m., ESPN2
Vanderbilt, 2 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
Alabama, 3 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
South Carolina, 7 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
Ole Miss, 1 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
LSU, 2 p.m., SEC Network +, ESPN +
NOTE: Missouri held its spring game on March 19.
*Tennessee is holding a private spring game Saturday in the Anderson Training Center as Neyland Stadium is not available because of renovations.