Nine months after his commitment to Kentucky, former Auburn quarterback Joey Gatewood is officially eligible, receiving waivers from the NCAA and SEC to suit up and play immediately.
“We’re excited that [Joey Gatewood] has received his waivers from the [NCAA] and [SEC] and will be eligible to play this season,” UK head coach Mark Stoops announced Wednesday evening. “We’re thankful that the SEC Presidents and Commissioner [Greg Sankey] took into account the unique circumstances around this season.”
“I appreciate the SEC and NCAA along with UK Athletics to be cleared for immediate eligibility this year,” Gatewood added in a follow-up tweet.
With Gatewood now ready to take the field for the Wildcats, what should fans expect? And more importantly, just how significant is this decision for the program for the 2020 season and beyond?
He’s a damn good quarterback
Above all else, Gatewood was a consensus top-100 prospect and top-three dual-threat quarterback in high school football. The talent speaks for itself.
Coming out of high school in 2018, the former Auburn Tiger was ranked No. 36 overall and No. 3 among dual-threat quarterbacks by ESPN, No. 62 overall and No. 3 among dual-threat quarterbacks by Rivals, and No. 91 overall and the No. 2 athlete by 247Sports.
After redshirting as a freshman, Gatewood went head-to-head with Bo Nix – the No. 1 quarterback in the class of 2019 – last spring, summer, and fall, with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn not naming Nix the starter until Aug. 20, just 11 days prior to the team’s season-opener against Oregon on Aug. 31.
After the spring, Malzahn called Gatewood and Nix “1, 1A,” showing just how close the two were in the competition.
“Joey Gatewood, Bo Nix are really 1, 1A,” Malzahn said at the Auburn Ambush alumni event via Brandon Marcello of 247Sports. “One of those two guys will be our starting quarterback for our first game. … The more reps they get, obviously the better they’re going to be. But they showed that they can lead our offense and both of them have a chance to be a very successful quarterback here at Auburn.”
Nix would go on to throw for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman, leading the Tigers to a 9-3 regular season record and an appearance in the Outback Bowl. In year two, Nix began the season with a 233-yard, three-touchdown performance in a home win over Kentucky, and expectations remain sky-high for the the Pinson, AL native.
Drawing comparisons to Cam Newton out of high school, Gatewood was the prized jewel of Auburn’s 2018 recruiting class. Unfortunately for him, the son of Auburn legend Patrick Nix just so happened to be the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the nation a year later.
“Joey, he’s a great guy,” Nix said after Gatewood announced his transfer from the program. “I really wish nothing but the best for him. I mean, he was put in a bad situation.”
In short, yes, Gatewood lost the starting competition at Auburn, but it was under a unique set of circumstances. Don’t let that take away from just how good the 6-foot-4, 223-pound quarterback can be.
“Joey’s going to be real special, man,” Auburn running back Kam Martin said last April. “I feel like Joey’s going to be real special.”
“Baby Cam Newton,” star wide receiver Seth Williams added. “I’m telling you. He’s another Cam Newton back there.”
Even after losing out on the starting job to Nix, Gatewood still played in seven games for the Tigers in 2019, racking up 148 yards and three touchdowns on the ground to go with 54 yards and two touchdowns on 5 of 7 passing.
Factor in his 28 rushing yards in 2018 as a true freshman, Gatewood has totaled 176 rushing yards on 32 carries with three touchdowns in eight career games for the Tigers.
Watching his film from last season, Auburn repeatedly used Gatewood as a short-yardage threat on 3rd and 4th down, powering up the middle or utilizing read options to keep defenders off-balance. To add an additional wrinkle, they’d occasionally throw out of RPOs with the defense prepared to stop the run.
At Kentucky, imagine the possibilities with Gatewood and, say, Chris Rodriguez together in the backfield. How do you stack the box to account for Rodriguez’s brute strength up the middle, but leave open the possibility of Gatewood faking the handoff and powering through outside the tackles? What about AJ Rose leaking out for passes out of the backfield? Kavosiey Smoke giving you both strength and speed options for different play calls? An occasional jump pass to Justin Rigg or Keaton Upshaw?
Kentucky not only has change-of-pace running backs at their disposal, they now have two change-of-pace running quarterback threats to utilize on a consistent basis.
An insurance policy for Terry Wilson
This is Terry Wilson’s team, we know this. Gatewood is not coming in to take the starting job from day one; the staff handed the reigns over to Wilson in 2018, and they’ve been his ever since.
It is fair to remember that, while Wilson looked comfortable in his first game back following the torn patellar tendon he suffered back on Sept. 7, 2019, it’s a complicated injury. And with the senior quarterback being a dynamic running threat – he ran the ball 13 times in the season-opener at Auburn – it just takes one hit to call for the next man up.
With the NCAA and SEC granting Gatewood immediate eligibility, Kentucky now has a legitimate option to replace Wilson if, God forbid, they must.
At minimum, the staff can share the carries and split the designed runs between quarterbacks to minimize the wear and tear on Wilson, allowing him to focus on being a primary passing threat.
In a perfect world, Wilson stays healthy all season long and Gatewood remains as a situational quarterback with an emphasis on converting in short-yardage situations. But it’s not always a perfect world, especially playing a ten-game SEC schedule. It never hurts having a former top-100 prospect ready to take over at any given moment, even if it’s for something minor.
It’s a free year
One of the biggest questions going into the season was the risk of Gatewood earning instant eligibility in a year they don’t need him on the field. With Wilson back and locked in as the team’s starter, why “waste” one of Gatewood’s two years of eligibility when you can have him as your starter for 2021 and 2022?
Due to the ongoing struggles that come with playing college football during the Covid-19 pandemic, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors announced back in August that fall sport student-athletes will not lose a year of eligibility whether they decide to play or opt out of the season. Because of this, Gatewood will be able to play as much as the staff wants without burning a year of eligibility, giving him three full years at Kentucky, if he wants.
On Gatewood’s side, there’s no pressure to take over as the starter or be a world-beater from day one, because he’s likely got that job penciled in for the next two seasons. Now, he can play his role and build up game reps as the year progresses with no weight on his shoulders. It’s a free season.
Beau Allen can be eased in
As we awaited the news on Gatewood’s eligibility, true freshman Beau Allen came in and earned the backup role for the season-opener at Auburn, beating out Sawyer Smith for the job.
“The past two weeks Beau has gotten quite a few reps, getting ready to go,” Mark Stoops said on his call-in radio show leading up to the Auburn game. “We have a lot of confidence in Beau, he’s very comfortable. The talent is there, you see that. He’s also a guy that doesn’t really get flustered, he may make a mistake or two, but he shakes it on, moves to the next play. He’s learning. You can see his comfort level going up.”
That’s a massive accomplishment and sparks massive optimism for the future no matter which way you look at it.
As great as it is that Allen came in immediately and turned heads enough to start the season as the backup, you don’t necessarily want to throw your quarterback of the future to the sharks from day one. Instead, Gatewood’s official addition to the game day roster allows for Allen to develop in practice and stay healthy while he waits for his time in Lexington.
If the in-state standout is as good as advertised – and if you ask the Kentucky staff, he is – we can worry about a true quarterback competition in the coming years. Iron sharpens iron.
Right now, though, Wilson and Gatewood should be the No. 1 and No. 2 quarterback options against Ole Miss and for the remainder of the season.