When Auburn opens the season against Mercer on Saturday, junior T.J. Finley will start at quarterback for the Tigers, according to media reports. Finley beat Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada for the job in preseason practices after appearing in nine games for Auburn last season while backing up Bo Nix, who transferred to Oregon last December.
A former three-star prospect in the Class of 2020, Finley began his career at LSU, appearing in five games as a true freshman in 2020, before joining Auburn last season and logging significant playing time. While he initially served as a reliever and change-of-pace option behind Nix, Finley took over starting duties in November once it was learned that Nix needed ankle surgery.
In starts against South Carolina, Alabama and Houston, Finley completed 55.8% of his passes for 552 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Though Auburn lost all three games, Finley was under center for the Tigers' near-upset of Alabama on Nov. 27.
Finley is the only scholarship quarterback with experience in an Auburn uniform on the roster, but Calzada's track record as Texas A&M's starter in the 2021 season made him a legitimate option entering preseason practices. Oregon transfer Robby Ashford, an Alabama native, and four-star true freshman Holden Geriner have also been part of the quarterback equation for Auburn in the preseason.
Here are the takeaways from the announcement as Finley prepares to lead the Auburn offense in a critical 2022 season for the Tigers and Harsin.
Due to an offseason surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, Calzada could not fully participate in Auburn's spring practice session after transferring from Texas A&M. Still, the former three-star prospect was expected to mount a formidable challenge for the starting job this month.
However, reports from Auburn practice sessions open to media have revealed that Ashford has frequently been seen taking second-team reps behind Finley. While that may come as a surprise to some who remember Calzada's heroic effort in the Aggies' upset win over then-No. 1 Alabama last season, it was only because of an injury to Haynes King last season that Calzada assumed the starting job at Texas A&M.
If King had been healthy, Calzada would likely have been relegated to backup duties with the Aggies as well. Though he filled in admirably during an 8-4 campaign for Texas A&M last season, Calzada's offseason surgery and lack of familiarity with the Auburn system gave Finley a clear leg up entering preseason practice.
Finley didn't flinch
Finley's familiarity with what Harsin wants in a quarterback made a clear difference for Finley as he separated himself from the pack. From the onset of preseason practice, Finley was spotted working the No. 1 offensive unit.
"Having a whole offseason — a season and a whole offseason — with this offense, understanding what Coach Harsin wants to do, what are his tendencies, and what he wants me to bring to the table…Me dissecting his offense all day, every day this spring and this summer has helped me, I think, take my game to the next level," Finley told Auburn Undercover.
The Tigers have a new offensive coordinator this season in Eric Kiesau, but Harsin's background as an offensive coordinator prior to becoming a head coach, means he's deeply involved with that side of the ball.
"T.J.'s got a coach's mentality," Harsin said this month. "He sees things out there. Not everybody conceptually picks things up very quickly. It takes a little bit of time. He's got that mentality."
Arguably the more dramatic quarterback battle at Auburn is over who will be the backup. While Ashford clearly emerged as a factor this month, Calzada's extensive experience in high-pressure situations on an SEC West team last season make him a compelling option in a pinch.
Ashford did not play in his two seasons with the Ducks after his standout career at the perennially strong Hoover High School just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. Geriner has also drawn praise from Harsin this month. Though it would be surprising if he saw action with three older scholarship quarterback options on the roster, it's clear Harsin is high on what Geriner can do in the future.