AUBURN — So much of how successful Auburn is this upcoming season will depend on the play of whichever quarterback earns the starting job. But the fate of the team’s offense doesn’t fall solely on the right arms of Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix.
“It's definitely a lot on us. We've got to catch balls,” wide receiver Seth Williams said this spring. “Yeah, they might have some bad passes, but we've still got to catch them. Plenty of teams' quarterbacks make bad passes, but you'll never know, because their receivers come down with it. Stuff like that, you've got to come through.”
There’s a lot to like about the players trying to make those catches, even if they are replacing last year’s leaders, Ryan Davis and Darius Slayton. But there are some questions, too.
Sal Cannella (Sr.), Will Hastings (Sr.), Zach Farrar (Jr.), Marquis McClain (Jr.), Eli Stove (Jr.), Shedrick Jackson (So.), Anthony Schwartz (So.), Seth Williams (So.), Matthew Hill (R-Fr.), Harold Joiner (R-Fr.), Ja’Varrius Johnson (Fr.), Jashawn Sheffield (Fr.)
What we know
What we know is Williams and Schwartz should be set up to have huge sophomore seasons.
The former came on strong late last year with 19 catches for 392 yards and four touchdowns over the team’s final seven games, and he shined on A-Day, catching four passes for 103 yards and a pair of scores on his way to MVP honors.
The latter — a world-class junior sprinter — was electric any time Auburn put the ball in his hands, carrying 27 times for 211 yards, catching 22 passes for 357 yards and totaling seven touchdowns.
And that was as true freshmen. In terms of receptions and receiving yards, Williams (who totaled 26 for 534) and Schwartz ranked third and fourth on the team, respectively, behind veterans Slayton (35 catches, 670 yards, five scores) and Davis (69 catches, 546 yards, one score). And now that both those players have moved on to the NFL’s Giants and Patriots, respectively, Williams and Schwartz are in prime position to ascend to the top of Auburn’s passing game pecking order.
Given the skill sets each brings, they could be a dangerous duo as sophomores. Williams is a big-bodied leaper with the ability to make any catch in traffic, and Schwartz one of the fastest players in college football, capable of taking the ball the distance any time he touches it.
“Explosive. Making big plays. Catching in traffic. We’ve got all the skills,” Williams said. “We all put that together, it’s going to be a good receiving corps for the year to come.”
What we don't know
What we don’t know for sure yet is just how good this wide receiving corps can be. When you look at Auburn’s long list of pass-catchers on paper, it’s easy to get lost in the group's potential, but there is still some uncertainty.
That’s even true for Schwartz. For all the production and potential, he still missed all of spring practice and a lot reps with Gatewood and Nix, while he focused on the spring track and field.
Hastings was explosive out of the slot two seasons ago when he averaged more than 20 yards per reception, but he missed most of last year and all of spring due after tearing his ACL and re-injuring his knee once he came back. Stove is a dual-threat weapon similar to Schwartz (though with less speed) and is further removed from the same injury Hastings had, but he caught only three passes last season.
Cannella has shown flashes of his red zone ability, but he went without a catch in five of 13 games last season. McClain had the best spring of his career going into his redshirt junior year, but he has only two career catches and did not record one last season.
Farrar was brought in as a transfer to fill the split-end, deep-threat role once occupied by Slayton, but he spent the past two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and FCS Youngstown State. Hill, who was a higher-ranked recruit than both Williams and Schwartz in 2018, looks like a potential Davis replacement after shining on A-Day with 128 yards and s score on five catches, but he’s coming off a redshirt year.
“I've been showing the coaches why I should've played last year,” Hill said. “I just had to sit down and just think about building confidence with the offense and just learn it. Now that I've learned it and am confident, there's much more to come.”
So Auburn has plenty of options in the passing game behind Williams and Schwartz, and those options have plenty of potential to be impact players. But which of those receivers steps to the forefront is still to be determined.
They said it
“I feel like Darius and Ryan set the standard. They really changed the narrative, and that was our goal when they were here. We always talked about changing the narrative of Auburn receivers and just showing that we're a top-tier receiver group. They kind of set that way, and we're playing off of that. Now we know what the standard is, and we do know there are catches to be made up. We've got talent in the room. We're deep in that room. We feel like no one is young anymore. Everyone has a year of experience here, everyone knows how stuff goes. So I feel like it's everyone's time to shine this year.” — Sal Cannella