Receiver: The Most Intriguing Position for Auburn Entering 2017
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.
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