Everything is cool now with Bo Nix. The taunts, the critics, the failures—all buried in some sort of dark past. The problem is, the entire nation has witnessed that dark past in the fishbowl that is the SEC.
“Last year I was a bit over it. Every week it was something different,” the Oregon quarterback told CBS Sports this week. “Honestly I couldn’t help it. I just remember feeling a little miserable. It wasn’t fun anymore.”
Last year Nix was third at Auburn. By the end, part of his legacy was a sort of college football commonplace. There was Good Bo and Bad Bo. You never knew what you were getting. In three years, Nix had three different coaches calling “plays.” There was the usual Maroon maelstrom. Too much was lost.
“I’ll say this: intense,” Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said when asked to describe that auburn culture.
The 32-year-old Dillingham is not only Nix’s fourth play-caller in four years, he spent the 2019 season as Auburn’s offensive coordinator. That was Nix’s first year. That is also the main reason why they are reunited this season. Fame has brought two surprises: No. 8 Oregon joins the College Football Playoff hunt, and Nix makes his way to the periphery of the Heisman Trophy talk.
“Auburn is always intense,” Dillingham added. “It’s intense when you’re winning because when you’re winning at a high level this is the year you need to win a natty. It’s intense when you lose because you shouldn’t lose. It’s intense 24/7 .”
That is such a succinct and accurate description of all that is Auburn football. It’s also a good backdrop for The Bo Nix Reinvention Project. In case you missed it, the former Tigers whip boy is coming out of what is arguably the best game of his career.
For the second time this season, Nix threw five touchdown passes. This time against then-No. 9 UCLA in what has been the Pac-12 game of the year so far. The Ducks won comfortably, positioning themselves as the Pac-12 frontrunner. Nix may have lit the fuse.
He won’t say that, but we are witnessing what was always simmering in 247Sports’ No. 1 dual-threat quarterback in the Class of 2019, the son of Auburn legacy Patrick Nix. This time, all that promise could remain.
Oregon is also intense, just in a different way. The modern identity was forged from Chip Kelly’s Win-The-Day pace. Mario Cristobal, before leaving for Miami, established SEC-level physicality. It was up to new coach Dan Lanning, his offensive coordinator and his quarterback to put their own identities on a program with his fourth head coach since 2016.
To Nix, he is more than a transplant. There’s a refreshing freedom to be able to suddenly change a game. He is a husband (married in July). There is serendipity about a career that started with a win against Oregon (2019 season opener) but ended in Auburn last November with a broken leg.
It’s a career that’s starting over – not exactly out of the public eye, but – out of the way in the Pacific Northwest. Seven games in, and certainly after Saturday, anything seems possible.
“It helps me to know that I have the situation under control,” Nix said.
Oregon’s current six-game winning streak is just now beginning to overshadow the 46-point season opening the Ducks got their hands on with reigning National Champion Georgia. For those steeped in Nix knowledge, the story was familiar. The quarterback threw two crippling interceptions and lost to the Bulldogs for the fourth time in fourth career meetings.
In the wake of the defeat, Dillingham told his players: “How and why we failed had nothing to do with Georgia and everything to do with us.”
In the last six games, only one other quarterback in the country has been more accurate than Nix. Of his 19 interceptions in his career, only one has come since Georgia’s loss. Since that day, the new Nix has been both confident and emboldened.
“If we played them again tomorrow, the game would be completely different, and everyone knows that,” Nix said of the Dawgs.
Wait, that requires a sequel. Do you believe Oregon would beat Georgia today?
“I do,” said the eldest. “From the first game of the season, many teams get so much better.”
In a way, what do you expect Nix to say? As that leader, he must exude confidence. But at any other time, in the depths of being Bad Bo, that statement would never have been uttered.
Everything is indeed cool with Bo Chapman Nix.
“It’s no use yelling at Bo because he’s already yelled at himself,” Dillingham said. “He wants to know why. If something isn’t right, don’t yell at him. He’s already angry. Why didn’t it go well?’
This transfer coach, player coordinator, dude-dude partnership is a major reason Oregon has continued the momentum started under Cristobal. It’s safe to say that Nix probably wouldn’t be in Oregon if he hadn’t played under Dillingham. As the attacking boss described it: he did all but stand on the table and urge Lanning to take Nix with him the moment the signal caller entered the portal.
“We have to do everything we can to get this man,” Dillingham recalled.
In 2019, Gus Malzahn called out plays, even though Dillingham held the OC title of Auburn. This happens in various programs. It’s not ideal for young OCs like Dillingham who are straining on the leash. On Saturday, he would be in the coach’s cubicle calling out the sets the defense was in, suggesting where to attack the opponent.
But to say it wasn’t optimal wouldn’t be fair. Nix was the SEC Freshman of the Year. Auburn defeated Alabama to win nine games in 2019.
“I didn’t really run the show,” Dillingham said of his only season on The Plains. “That was a Gus show. Bo always knew the philosophy I wanted to have, the control I wanted to give the quarterback.”
That’s as close to Oregon’s turnaround as anything. Lanning’s defensive chops are established. That’s why he took the job after overseeing one of the largest defenses in recent history in Georgia last year.
The relationship with Dillingham was forged when the two were with Mike Norvell in Memphis from 2016-17. The start in Eugene was impressive.
That game-changing freedom is palpable. This season, Nix had eight multi-touchdown games in his career. He already has five this season. Nix is one of only five quarterbacks to have thrown five touchdowns multiple times this season. Only four other quarterbacks are more accurate than Nix (71.5%). His legs rank fifth nationally in yards per carry.
Perhaps most striking are the explosive plays. Oregon is tied for first place in the Pac-12 with gains of over 50 yards. It ranks second in passes of at least 40 yards.
UCLA got a blitzkrieg on Saturday. Eight of Nix’s 22 completions went for at least 17 yards. And if you want to get there, Oregon also has the most yards gained over Georgia (313) this season.
“I play in what I ‘should’ be called football,” Nix said of his past. “‘The ball is supposed to go here. If it does, you’re in good shape.” The worst thing an offensive coordinator wants is… ‘Okay, I’m mentioning this piece and I have no idea where this ball is going.'”
Then there’s the secret sauce that freed Nix.
“Occasionally, on the fourth and eighth, [Dillingham] understands. “Okay, Bo. Make a play if it’s not there,” Nix said.
Not surprisingly, Oregon ranks third in fourth-down conversions (12 of 13, 92.3%).
You can see why Dillingham’s name has come up – at least on the periphery – for the Arizona and Auburn state openings. He is a Phoenix resident who attended ASU. His football career ended because of a torn ACL in high school. To supplement his income during college, Dillingham coached just about every youth sport for the city of Scottsdale. That included a high school job, soccer, basketball, and even dodgeball.
“We used the five D’s,” Dillingham said, jokingly drawing from a training method used in the 2004 film starring Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller. “That was kind of our practice plan. I got the keys out and everything. Kids were harder 11 years ago. Keys were still allowed.”
The coach grinned and let the levity sink in. I might as well admit, “Duck, dodge, dive, dive and dodge” applies to football as well.
They’re a couple — the quarterback and his coordinator — both looking for something better.
“You’re already 5-9, white and unathletic,” Dillingham told himself after bumping his knee. “You might as well develop your career in a different way.”
Dillingham coached for seven years at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, where the staff included current Las Vegas Raiders general manager Dave Ziegler, Denver Broncos assistant GM Darren Mougey and Idaho State coach Charlie Ragle. Former Michigan All-American and three-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Taylor Lewan passed Chaparral during that time.
Nine years later, the stage is bigger, as is the importance of communication. Nix and his coordinator both claim to know what the other is thinking.
“I think it’s great for him to just be a 21-year-old kid in college.” [when] everyone thinks you’re bad and you really don’t have any pressure,” Dillingham said of Nix. “Come in and play football. Nothing else. No games. No drama. american football. It was rejuvenating for him.”
Every morning, Nix kisses his wife, leaves their townhome in Eugene, and sets off for another football adventure. When asked if the past four years have been a test of his deep faith or example, Nix thinks for a moment before answering, “Both.”
“Up to college life was easy,” he mused. “Mom and Dad, high school football. I never experienced real things… But at the end of the day, when it came down to it, I understood that football would come and go. It wasn’t the end of the world totally that’s why i could get out [the bad times]I believe.
“I knew the ending wasn’t just football.”