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Receiver: The Most Intriguing Position for Auburn Entering 2017

By on July 31st, 2017 in Football, News 13 Comments »
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Auburn receiver Darius Slayton averaged 20 yards per catch in 2016 (photo: Auburn media file)

Jarrett Stidham, and Sean White by proxy have garnered virtually all of the attention in the Auburn offseason. And for good reason. Quarterback is the most important position on the field. In Gus Malzahn’s world, the QB play has had sharp swings in his tenure at Auburn, something that didn’t really happen in his stops elsewhere. One thing is certain, the inability for players to rise above the competition has spelled doom for Auburn offenses as average QB play leads to success and above-average play leads to championships.

Probably no other school in the country has seen such swings. Auburn fans frustrated by those off years should recall what Malzahn has done in the others. Even last year’s QB carousel had SEC record-breaking games such as the epic ground-and-pound beatdown of Arkansas. 

Regardless of what people think of Malzahn’s offensive philosophy, he has always been brilliant at adapting his play calling to his players’ abilities. Perhaps that is what is so intriguing about the upcoming 2017 season.

A general feeling is that with Kam Pettway, Kerryon Johnson, Kam Martin and the bruiser, Malik Miller, Auburn would be just fine with game manager Sean White, who has been very accurate when healthy. Yet, the wild speculation that Auburn is a true contender centers around not only former five-star Jarrett Stidham but also the new OC, Chip Lindsey. The combination of a Texas gunslinger, an Air-Raid play caller, and a terrific run game behind one of the country’s most experienced lines looks like a recipe for setting records. 

Yet, regardless if Auburn is a run-first (a ‘la 2013) or a run-and-gun offense (a ‘la 2010), there is a piece to this puzzle that is overlooked by almost everyone. No matter how Gus melds the offense, Auburn has to get solid play all around from the receiver position.

Malzahn’s offense is at its best when the receiver position is as balanced in blocking as in catching the ball. The defense can’t distinguish a run or pass play based on personnel. Knowing the importance of the position and its play, what can Auburn fans expect from the most intriguing yet perplexing position group on the field? 

Say goodbye to upperclassmen John Franklin III, Jason Smith, and Ryan Davis. Ryan Davis had 25 receptions for 194 yards and a touchdown in 2016. He had a three-game stretch of games with five catches before a string of eight games with just eight total catches. Jason Smith ended the year buried on the depth chart with only four catches after a disappointing 2015 campaign and never had more than two catches in any game in his Auburn career. The coaches have attempted all manner of ways to include JFIII into the game plan since his arrival, culminating in his move to WR this spring. However, he’s shown he lacks the hands to legitimately play the position. 

The more intriguing question is, who among the young group of sophomores (Marquis McClain is a redshirt freshman) will contribute? Nate Craig-Myers was unstoppable on A-Day, hooking up with Stidham over and over on huge pass plays. Not only was Craig-Myers Stidham’s first look, reviewing the plays it’s apparent that he was also OC Chip Lindsey’s first option. In postgame interviews, Stidham was quick to praise Craig-Myers and also Darius Slayton. Slayton had three catches for 65 yards on A-Day, right on his 20 YPC average of 2016. Regardless of their blocking ability, these guys will be on the field. 

Slayton shares a similar body type and skill set with Kyle Davis, who also had a 20 YPC average in 2016. While fans remember Davis’ highlight catch against Arkansas State, it is Slayton that appears to be a more polished pass catcher on the outside.

There are two other players that could challenge Slayton and Davis: Marquis McClain, who has all the raw talent in the world as evidenced late in the spring game, and Eli Stove. Stove came to Auburn as a top-20 WR, behind Kyle Davis and Craig-Myers. Stove contributed 350 yards in 2016, both on the ground and catching passes. His speed is undeniable, but can he be an every down player? If he can’t develop as a blocker, his presence on the field will fool no one, similar to JFIII. 

Finally, we come to the most intriguing players on the list: Sal Cannella and Will Hastings. JUCO transfer Sal Cannella is the largest of all the receivers at 6′ 5″ and 228 pounds and is listed frequently as a tight end. His red-zone upside is undeniable, and he was on the field on the first series as a perimeter blocker, which is important. 

Hastings was a surprise in 2015 with eight catches in Auburn’s first three games. Afterwards, he rarely saw looks in pass plays although he was one of Auburn’s dedicated perimeter blockers as it steamrolled opponents in October. In the A-Day game, Hastings was easily Stidham’s second favorite target. He caught multiple checkdown passes, which is what slot/possession receivers must do, however, it’s been overlooked that he was involved in two bubble screens and pop passes. 

The one-time kicker displayed phenomenal hands and terrific route running on A-Day, leading everyone in catches, but his speed is the most surprising thing of all. According to position coach Kodi Burns, “Hastings has the fastest 20-yard shuttle time in program history as well as one of the fastest 10-yard splits—the first quarter of the 40-yard dash—to pair with a 4.3 time in the 40.” According to AL.com, Stidham’s faith in him as a receiver, Lindsey’s dedication to get him the ball, and his ability to hold the edge make him an every down player and a surprise breakout star. 

Auburn has the talent it needs at receiver to stretch defenses, but who will be the every down players that can hold the perimeter and stretch the field while confusing opposing defenses? Expect the first four players to be Darius Slayton, Nate Craig-Myers, Sal Cannella, and Will Hastings. Regardless of Auburn’s balance, these guys can do it all.

13 Comments

  1. easyedwin easyedwin says:

    6 feet, 5 inches = Like

  2. sparkey sparkey says:

    If you are right, then Auburn is wrong. Kyle Davis should be on the field more often than not blocking be damned. That said, he is a really good blocker Gus just went to his upperclassman disease. Also, NCM didn’t play as much as Kyle Davis did in 2016. Sal Cannella will not be on the field that much either, but he will be there often enough to make a difference anyway.

    • Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

      I agree 100%. It’s just hard to have faith that Davis can overcome Slayton after missing the entire spring. That’s literally the only thing that kept him from being a starter, in my mind.

  3. neonbets says:

    Great post, Zach.

    I hope Auburn opts for a focus on ‘receivers-as-weapons’ as opposed to ‘receivers-as-blockers’. No doubt–utilizing the receivers as blockers does help the running game. But a weaponized receiving corp that can stretch the field and is a threat on every play will also help the running game, while being able to do its own damage as well.

    Plus, I hope they find a way to get JFIII touches. I don’t like him as a QB, but he is a dynamic runner.

  4. audude audude says:

    Thanks for the breakdown Zach. I agree when Sparkey says” “Gus went to his upperclassmen disease” . Last year we did not see the creative play calling and the adaptability to the players on available as we have in years past.
    Our offense runs best when we play to the strengths of the weapons we have.

    WDE

  5. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Cannella was only thrown to once on A-Day, and he made a contested catch look easy. He was a force out there, blocking on those quick screens. So many times Auburn has run that play since Gus arrived on campus, only to have the blocker whiff and the corner make the tackle for little gain.

    ……On the other hand, if you can move the chains with that play, it forces safeties and linebackers to play wider, and it opens holes in the middle. Me, I HATE seeing Auburn line up with two or three receivers split out there to the same side, and the defense just has one cornerback on all of them. That should be an automatic check to an overloaded play to that side, and far too often in the past, it hasn’t been.

  6. Orangeblood says:

    Like your analysis.
    And I think the talent of receivers are now stacked two deep in blocking and receiving talent.
    Question is… What will Chip do with them? A good OC will mix and match personnel to keep defenses guessing. It keeps defenses from knowing the play by the package.
    I think we will see Stove and JF3
    on jet sweeps.
    And BTW…. I believe we now have TWO qb’s with SEC talent.

    • sparkey sparkey says:

      Any OC would do that without a stubborn, arrogant, paranoid jerk telling them they can’t run anything but what he says they can run.

  7. Pine Mt Tiger Pine Mt Tiger says:

    Good post Zach & spot on with the need for receivers who can not only catch but also block.

  8. Zach Taylor Zach Taylor says:

    247 reporting Jason Smith working with defensive backs. Guess I was more right than I thought.

  9. […] the announcement that former QB/WR Jason Smith was working with the defensive backs. As reported earlier this week, Smith’s time as at receiver wasn’t expected to continue. Auburn also lost scout team […]