BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn didn’t dodge the question.
Auburn’s head coach admitted the team failed to address one of its key priorities during fall camp. Yes, the top objective was accomplished, as the Tigers found their starting quarterback in junior college transfer Nick Marshall. However, Auburn still has no idea who Marshall’s go-to receiver will be heading into Saturday’s season opener against Washington State. Even as Malzahn acknowledged the role was still a question mark, he wasn’t panicking, either.
He’s been in a similar situation before, after all.
“In 2009, when we first got here, we were saying the same thing,” he said. “We thought Darvin Adams had a chance to be (the No. 1 receiver), but he showed it on the field. When I say that I’m real curious to see how some of our guys to respond, (that includes) the receivers. We need somebody to step up and be the go-to guy. How you do that is prove it on Saturdays. It’s not just practice. That’ll be definitely something that we’re looking forward to seeing.
Adams rose from obscurity to become the Tigers’ top option four years ago. Coming off a three-catch season in 2008, the Canton, Miss., native exploded in 2009, setting a single-season school record with 60 receptions (10 for touchdowns) and tallying 997 receiving yards, the third-best mark in Tigers’ history.
Will any receiver on this year’s roster be able to duplicate Adams’ feat?
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee didn’t rule it out, but said it wouldn’t be fair to place that expectation on just one player.
“I hope it’s a couple guys,” he said. “Last year our leading receiver (at Arkansas State) was a redshirt freshman (J.D. McKissic), and he had 103 catches and he didn’t even play the year before. He would probably have been your third or fourth choice going into the season, not that the other guys didn’t play well. It was just the way it all worked out.”
Lashlee went a step further by naming specific players, which Malzahn has been reticent to do this fall. A quartet of names came to Lashlee’s mind: Quan Bray, Jaylon Denson, Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis have been in the Tigers’ system long enough that it’s time for all of them to “grow up” and start producing at a high level.
“I think (wide receivers) Coach (Dameyune) Craig has done a really good job with that whole room of bringing them along,” Lashlee said, “not only making plays and all, but mentally with their confidence.”
Bray took the words to heart, noting it was a “humbling experience” to know how much the coaching staff expects of him.
“I’m just trying to be that guy, I’m just trying to make every play,” he said. “It’s not a lot of pressure. I’m just trying to do what I normally do, what I’ve always been doing. It’s definitely a great experience.”
Bray isn’t the only junior wideout the Tigers are counting on — Denson falls into the same category.
“He did make a few ‘wow’ plays in the spring,” Lashlee said. “We’ve got him in a role now where he’s more of a steady guy. And he’s still making some great catches at times. He’s probably about as versatile a guy as we have, from being a physical wideout to being involved in (both) the run game and in the pass game. I just hope he keeps it up.”
It’s a sophomore who may have the most star potential, though. Louis was touted time and again by teammates during fall camp for his “explosive” plays in the passing game.
The next order of business is making those type of catches on a regular basis.
“He’s one of those guys that can be very special,” Lashlee said. “He’s still young. This is going to be his second true year to be here and to be playing, and he didn’t play a whole lot last year. But he has a lot of ability and there are times he makes some plays and you just go, ‘Wow.’ There’s no doubt we’d like him to do that consistently.”
Bray left no doubt that he hopes to see himself and the rest of the receiving corps reach the end zone with regularity this season.
The Tigers will have to make a handful of those plays right out of the gate, however, if they want to reach Bray’s targeted point total on Saturday.
“Hopefully, it won’t be a shootout,” he said. “On our part it will be a shootout. We’re trying to put up 70.”