- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor’s note: This is part four in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.
AUBURN, Ala. -- With Nick Marshall back, Jeremy Johnson waiting in the wings and four-star QB Sean White expected to arrive this summer, quarterback is one position that Auburn doesn’t have to worry about. If anything, it will be improved from last season as Marshall will have a chance to go through spring practice for the first time.
The key will be his development as a passer, though. He led all SEC quarterbacks in rushing last year, but if there’s an area where he can improve, it’s throwing the football.
“We will see where we’re at with the talents around him,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “We really feel like we can be effective in the passing game and we can be more balanced, but at the same time, we’re going to play to our strengths.”
The strengths last year included Tre Mason and a dominant offensive line. It didn’t include a consistent crop of wide receivers. If Marshall wants to take the next step as a quarterback, it’s on the receivers, old and new, to step up and play better.
Battling for No. 1: It was a breakout year for Sammie Coates. The sophomore had 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns after catching just six passes the season before. He might not be your typical go-to wide receiver, but he had a connection with Marshall that can’t be taught. He’ll be leaned on heavily again this season. After Coates, there are a handful of receivers who have potential but have yet to play to their abilities. Ricardo Louis is the perfect example. He showed what he can do against Georgia, catching four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, but the next week he had just two catches for negative yards. The talent is there, but can he put it together? The biggest surprise last year was the play of freshman Marcus Davis. He wasn’t highly touted coming out of high school, but he made some clutch catches during the season and finished third on the team in receptions (23).
Strength in numbers: With Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Melvin Ray all back along with the three players mentioned above, there isn’t a lack of options at wide receiver for Auburn. Bray was second on the team with three touchdown receptions, and Ray caught his first touchdown on the biggest stage, the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers also have a pair of talented freshmen -- Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker -- who hope to improve from Year 1 to Year 2. They were both ranked in the ESPN 300 when they signed last February. The biggest boost could come from the return of Jaylon Denson. The junior was starting for the Tigers until he tore his ACL in game four against LSU. Denson wasn’t known as a pass-catcher, but he was as good a downfield blocker as they had on the team.
New on the scene: It’s fair to say that Auburn’s best wide receiver hasn’t even been mentioned yet. He hasn’t played a down for the Tigers, but D'haquille Williams has the size, skill and potential to emerge as the go-to guy in a crowded group of receivers. He was the top junior college player in the country, he enrolled in January, and assistant coach Dameyune Craig tabbed him as a player who could make a Jameis Winston-like impact when he gets to the Plains. High praise for a kid who has yet to catch a pass yet, but he’s not the only newcomer who could make an early impact. ESPN 300 athlete Stanton Truitt is thought to be the fastest player in Auburn’s 2014 class, and even if he doesn’t break the rotation at wide receiver his first year, he could help the Tigers in the return game.