AUBURN — The question asked in the immediate aftermath of Eli Stove and Will Hastings each suffering torn ACLs in the span of a few days during the spring of 2018 was, how does Auburn replace them?

College football is very much a “next man up” endeavor. Stove and Hastings were expected to be key parts of the team’s wide receiving corps, but nothing stopped just because they were injured. The Tigers still needed to prepare for the upcoming season.

So, they replaced them. Anthony Schwartz filled the dual threat receiving and rushing role Stove thrived in. Sal Cannella and Seth Williams brought size and leaping ability to the slot position that Hastings brought speed and quickness to. Auburn, for the most part, got by.

Looking back on it now, though, the first question maybe shouldn’t have been about who would play in place of Stove and Hastings. It probably should have been, how much will Auburn miss having them on the field? Because the answer, as it turns out, was a lot.

“I will say this about last year: Eli Stove and Will Hastings was really a big blow to us from the standpoint that those guys were proven big-play guys to get open versus man,” head coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC Media Days last week. “That was a big blow to our offense.”

Stove and Hastings did wind up playing for Auburn during the 2018 season — both made a planned but still surprising return to the field during a Week 2 win over Alabama State — but neither contributed in any sort of meaningful way. Stove caught three passes for 17 yards over four games. Hastings played only four snaps before re-injuring his knee, a setback that cost him most of spring practice this year, as well.

These are two players that, in 2017, accounted for 24.2 percent of the Tigers’ receiving yards and six touchdowns during a 10-win season that included an SEC West crown. Stove caught 29 passes for 265 yards and carried 30 times for 315 more on the ground. Hastings caught 26 passes for 525 yards and four scores.

“It was very frustrating,” Stove said. “Not being able to do some stuff that I really wanted to do last year and help the team out — I saw the struggles both sides had, and when you’re hurt, you feel like you can do something to help the team out. Me and Will were just sitting back, and we couldn’t do nothing about it.”

Of course, Auburn’s season-long offensive troubles in 2018 weren’t limited to just the extended absences of two wide receivers. An offensive line replacing four seniors took more than half the year to find its footing; a running game missing reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson was, perhaps understandably, not as effective; and quarterback Jarrett Stidham regressed statistically in his second season as the starter.

But there is one area where having Stove and Hastings certainly would have helped — explosive plays. That duo was responsible 19 of the Tigers’ 75 plays of 20 or more yards in 2017 (13 rushing and six receiving), a total which ranked 24th nationally. Without them last season, Auburn ranked 93rd nationally with just 53 such plays.

"Will Hastings and Eli Stove are two veteran guys that two years ago were some of the best playmakers we had," Malzahn said. "Will can get open versus anybody covering him in a man-to-man situation. He looks like he's about 13 years old, too. If you ever see him, you wouldn't think he's an SEC player."

Hastings is an SEC player, though. A good one, too — the Arkansas high school legend (he’s one of two players in state history to top 2,000 yards receiving in a season) and former walk-on kicker is an unbelievable athlete for his size (5-foot-10, 174 pounds) and has averaged nearly 17 yards per catch over the course of his career.

And if there is a silver lining to Hastings and Stove missing nearly all of last season, it’s that some of Auburn's other pass-catchers got experience and playing time they otherwise might not have. Schwartz used his sprinter speed to catch 22 passes for 357 yards, rush 27 times for 211 more and total seven touchdowns. Cannella had his best season in blue and orange, hauling in 12 passes for 111 yards and three scores. Williams looked like a bona fide star catching 26 passes for 535 yards and five touchdowns, with many of those coming in highlight reel fashion.

Now, instead of replacing Stove and Hastings, those three players will be joined by them. Add in former four-star recruit Matthew Hill coming off a redshirt year, Zach Farrar coming in as a graduate transfer from Youngstown State and Marquis McClain coming off the best spring of his career, and the Tigers should have no shortage of receiving options in the passing game.

With Ryan Davis (team-high 69 receptions) and Darius Slayton (team-high 670 yards) off to the NFL and a freshman (either Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix) set to start at quarterback, that's exactly what Auburn needs.

“You’re talking about two guys who haven’t really played college football, and one’s going to be the starter,” Malzahn said. “We really need to be really good around them early, and I think the fact the receivers are going to be all back, and then you add those two (Stove and Hastings) — I think it’ll really help them.”

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