Receiver: The Most Intriguing Position for Auburn Entering 2017

Monday, July 31, 2017

Receiver: The Most Intriguing Position for Auburn Entering 2017


Jarrett Stidham, and Sean White by proxy, have largely garnered virtually all of the attention in the Auburn off season. And for good reason. Quarterback is the most important position on the field. In Gus Malzahn’s world, the QB play has seen sharp swings in his tenure at Auburn which is something that hasn’t really happened in his stops elsewhere. One thing is certain, the inability for players to rise above the competition has spelled doom for Auburn offenses, 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 that may be frustrated by those off years should recall just 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 beat down of Arkansas. 

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

Most fans agree 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 of Auburn as a true contender centers around not only former five-star Jarrett Stidham but the inclusion of new OC Chip Lindsey. The combination of a Texas Gunslinger, an Air-Raid play caller, and a terrific run game behind one of the countries 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 most 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 it’s very best when the receiver position is as balanced blocking as catching the ball. The defense can’t distinguish a run or pass play based on personnel.  Knowing the value placed on 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 up the year buried on the depth chart with only four catches following a disappointing 2015 campaign. Smith has never had more than two catches in any one 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. 

Next comes the more intriguing question. 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, even though he had a disappointing 2016 season. Not only was Craig-Myers Stidham’s first look, reviewing the play itself, you can see all along, he was OC Chip Lindsey’s first option. In post game interviews, Stidham was quick to praise Craig-Myers as well as Darius Slayton who had three catches for 65 yards on A-Day which was right on his 20 YPC average he held in 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, yet Davis missed the entire spring. 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. First is Marquis McClain, who has all the raw talent in the world, as evidenced late in the spring game. Then, there’s Eli Stove. Stove came to Auburn as a top 20 WR in the country behind Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Myers. Stove contributed 350 yards, 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 two most intriguing players on the list: Sal Cannella and Will Hastings. JUCO transfer Sal Cannella is the largest of all the receivers at 6-5 228, though he is listed frequently as a tight end. The upside to his use in the redzone is undeniable. However, it was Cannella who was on the field on the first series as a perimeter blocker and that is an important piece of knowledge. 

Hastings has shown that he can be that player. After being a surprise in 2015 with eight catches in Auburn’s first three games, he rarely saw any looks in pass plays, though he was one of Auburn’s dedicated perimeter blockers as Auburn steam rolled opponents in October. Hastings was easily Stidham’s second favorite target. He caught multiple check down passes, which is what slot/possession receivers have success. However, its been overlooked that there were no less than two dedicated plays devoted to Hastings in the form of bubble screens and pop passes. 

The one-time kicker displayed phenomenal hands and terrific route running on A-Day as he led everyone in catches yet it is his speed that 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 Stidham’s faith in him as a receiver, Lindsey’s dedication to get him the ball, and Hastings’ ability to hold the edge make him an every down players and a surprise breakout star. 

Auburn has all the talent it needs at receiver to stretch defenses, but who will be those 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 what balance Auburn has, these guys can do it all.

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