Auburn Tigers: Marcus Davis

Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).
We continue our breakdown of each position group in the SEC on Wednesday by looking at a group that might be low on name recognition but quite high -- and deep -- on talent.

Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jordan Matthews are all off to the NFL. Now a new group of playmakers is ready to emerge.

Who will be this season’s star pass-catchers? Let’s find out.

Wide receiver/tight end position rankings

1. Alabama: Like so many on this list, all of it depends on who is throwing the football. If Jacob Coker shows he can spin it, then Alabama will have the best group of pass-catchers in the SEC -- maybe the country. It isn’t just Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard, whom you will read about later this afternoon. Howard, who was underutilized in the passing game last year, is poised to have a breakout sophomore campaign. But there’s also veteran DeAndrew White, all-purpose star Christion Jones and depth that includes a litany of former blue-chip prospects.

2. Texas A&M: Too bad Johnny Manziel didn’t stay another year because he might have really enjoyed the guys he was throwing to. Malcome Kennedy, he of 60 receptions and seven touchdowns last season, isn’t even the most exciting receiver on the field. That honor belongs to one of two freshmen. Ricky Seals-Jones, who redshirted last season, would have reminded Manziel so much of Evans, an impossibly tall target who can go up and get the ball. And then there’s Speedy Noil, the No. 1 athlete in the 2014 class, who looks like a dangerous weapon at slot receiver. With tight end Cameron Clear working the middle of the field, the Aggies should be able to stretch the field effectively.

3. Georgia: How can you not like Chris Conley? Not only did he write and direct a "Star Wars" fan film, he’s also a pretty good receiver with 45 catches for 651 yards last season. Starting opposite him, if his health holds up, should be Malcolm Mitchell. The redshirt junior has loads of potential, as he was second on the team in receiving in 2011 and 2012. Throw in Jay Rome, one of the more underrated tight ends in the SEC, and that’s a good group for quarterback Hutson Mason to work with.

4. Auburn: Nick Marshall is progressing as a passer at the right time. His receiver corps, which looked thin at times last season, is set to make a big jump. Sammie Coates, Auburn’s leading man, has the potential to become much more than a speed demon who can run a nasty post. Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis are all guys who have shown flashes of talent. Then there’s D'haquille Williams, the former No. 1 junior college receiver. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound target has all the tools to become one of the best receivers in the SEC.

5. Ole Miss: Offensive coordinators love it when they can stretch the field both vertically and horizontally. Laquon Treadwell, who as a true freshman trailed only Jordan Matthews for the most receptions in the SEC last season, is the type of home-run threat to keep safeties on their heels. Evan Engram, who made a positive impression as a rookie himself before succumbing to injury, gives Ole Miss a one-two punch by demanding coverage in the middle of the field because he’s simply too athletic a tight end to be covered by most linebackers in the league.

6. South Carolina: They’re on the small side. Let’s get that part out of the way. There’s not a 6-3 or 6-5 receiver Dylan Thompson will be able to lob the ball to this season. But nonetheless, he’s got some options. Damiere Byrd is one of the fastest receivers in the SEC, and Pharoh Cooper is another guy who is dangerous with the ball in space. That’s not to mention Shaq Roland, who has All-SEC type talent. Though his 6-1 frame might not excite you, he’s one of those guys who can create separation and get the ball in traffic. If there’s one spot you’d like to see the Gamecocks progress, it’s at tight end. And with Jerell Adams and Rory Anderson, there’s potential to improve.

7. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen needs to find some playmakers on offense. Outside of running back, his ability to develop talent at receiver and tight end has been somewhat of a disappointment. This year could change that. Jameon Lewis has the upside of a poor man’s Percy Harvin, someone who can take it the distance any time he touches the football. De’Runnya Wilson, a 6-5 target with a hoops background, is just the type of over-the-top threat to play off the small, speedy Lewis. With a good group of running backs and a quarterback who can extend plays, expect more from the passing game in 2014.

8. Tennessee: Butch Jones has a lot to be excited about when it comes to his receivers this season. But until the status of Pig Howard is determined, that excitement is on hold. The talented receiver was forced to miss all of the spring with “personal issues.” If he can return and join Marquez North, it would make for a formidable one-two punch. Add top signee Josh Malone into the mix and whoever starts under center should be happy with what he’s working with. That said, without a single starter returning on the offensive line, time for the quarterback to throw downfield could be a big obstacle.

9. LSU: Yes, the team’s top two receivers are gone. Jarvis Landry and Beckham were both the real deal last season, accounting for 66 percent of all receptions. And, yes, LSU is replacing its quarterback, too. But we’re betting on potential here. Travin Dural and John Diarse have the tools to be starters in this league. And then there are the freshmen. LSU signed two the top three receivers in the 2014 class -- No. 1 Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- in addition to Jacory Washington, the No. 5 tight end in the country.

10. Florida: It’s time to prove it, Florida. We’ve heard for a few years now how the receivers were getting better. But last season was the same old story with no real playmakers on the outside. Maybe new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper will change that. Demarcus Robinson seems in line for a big sophomore bump, along with Ahmad Fulwood and Chris Thompson. With seniors Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose back, there’s a good amount of depth to lean on. But until we see consistent results from the Gators’ receivers, we’ll have to wait and see if this really is the year.

11. Missouri: Gary Pinkel had to let Dorial Green-Beckham go. But what a waste of talent it was. He would have easily been the most talented receiver in the SEC. Now his future, and that of Missouri’s offense, is up in the air as the Tigers fail to return any of their top three pass-catchers from last season. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are back, which helps, but more receivers will need to emerge to help Maty Mauk in the passing game.

12. Kentucky: Javess Blue quietly was one of the most productive receivers in the SEC last season, despite having little consistency at quarterback. Blue, now a senior, finished 14th in the league with 43 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns. He’ll anchor a group that has some potential. Ryan Timmons, a former four-star prospect in the 2013 class, could break through after playing in all 12 games as a freshman. And as far as true freshmen go, look for Kentucky to lean on its 2014 class that includes Thaddeus Snodgrass, T.V. Williams, Dorian Baker and Blake Bone.

13. Arkansas: Someone needs to take the load off of Hunter Henry this season. Henry, who caught 28 passes and four touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013, stands to make up the majority of the Razorbacks passing game now that Javontee Herndon, the team’s leading receiver in 2013, is gone. So is Kiero Small, the fourth-leading receiver. The good news: Demetrius Wilson, who missed all of last season, returns. Wilson, a big target at 6-foot-3, could be a difference-maker.

14. Vanderbilt: You don’t replace Jordan Matthews. You don’t replace the man with the most career receptions in SEC history. Vanderbilt will try, but it’s going to be difficult. And it’s going to be even more of an uphill battle considering that Jonathan Krause, the team’s second-leading receiver, also is gone. With those two no longer on campus, look for C.J. Duncan and Jordan Cunningham to step up.

Second-year stars: Auburn

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In 2013, the freshmen of the SEC were truly fabulous.

Hunter Henry and Alex Collins were impact players at Arkansas. Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche were spectacular for Ole Miss. And who can forget the play of Vernon Hargreaves III, Chris Jones and A'Shawn Robinson?

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsMontravius Adams burst onto the scene early last season but failed to produce much the rest of the 2014 campaign.
But standout rookies aren’t easy to come by. More often it takes some time to make a transition from high school to college, and in Year 2 we generally see the biggest jump in production from players.

With that in mind, we’re taking a team-by-team look at the players who didn’t quite break through as freshmen but could see their stock skyrocket with as sophomores.

Next up: Auburn

Class recap: Before Gene Chizik was fired, he and his staff had put together a strong recruiting class at Auburn. It was up to Gus Malzahn, who was hired in December, to try and keep it intact. The new staff saw in-state stars Reuben Foster and Dee Liner flip to Alabama, but they were able to keep defensive end Carl Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, and the majority of other recruits who had already committed. Malzahn also picked up a late commitment from junior college quarterback Nick Marshall who turned out to be a critical piece to Auburn’s turnaround this past season.

Second-year star: DT Montravius Adams (6-foot-4, 306 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Ranked No. 13 overall in the ESPN 300, Adams just missed out on five-star status. The Vienna, Ga., product was the No. 3 player in the Peach State and the No. 2 defensive tackle nationally.

2013 in review: Nobody will forget Adams running onto the field for the first time against Washington State and sacking the quarterback on his first-ever play. It ignited a defense that looked slow and stagnant before that, and it instantly created lofty expectations for the freshman star. However, that turned out to be Adams’ only sack of the season. He played in 13 games but finished with just 20 tackles, 1.5 for loss and that lone sack.

2014 potential: Maybe Adams wasn’t ready for the rigors of a college football season. His playing time decreased as the year went on, and with it, so did his impact on the game. He now has been at Auburn for almost a full year, and he had a chance to go through spring practice for the first time. Everybody is talking about Lawson as a breakout star for 2014, but what’s stopping Adams from becoming a dominant force up front? The talent is there, and with Nosa Eguae moving on, there’s now an opportunity, too. He has had star written all over him since he arrived on the Plains, but it’s up to him when he fulfills that potential.

Also watch out for: Adams and Lawson are both in line for huge sophomore seasons, but don’t sleep on fellow defensive lineman Elijah Daniel. He was fourth on the team in sacks (2.5) as a freshman and should get a boost in playing time. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson showed he was more than capable of filling in for Marshall when needed last year, and the coaches might try and use him even more this year. Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens are both expected to contribute to one of the deeper wide receiver corps in the SEC. Davis made some clutch catches last year while Stevens hauled in two touchdowns in the spring game. And knowing that both the starting kicker and punter were going to be seniors, Malzahn addressed each position in the 2013 class with Daniel Carlson at kicker and Jimmy Hutchinson at punter. The two redshirt freshmen are expected to start for the Tigers this fall.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When asked about newcomer D'haquille Williams, the nation’s top junior college player, Nick Marshall said he has been very impressive to this point, but the senior quarterback was quick to point out that Auburn has a number of other great wide receivers this season, too.

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Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsTop wideout Sammie Coates and the rest of the Tigers' receiving corps from 2013 return this season.
That’s because with the exception of Trovon Reed, who moved to cornerback this spring, the Tigers have their entire receiving corps back from last season.

Sammie Coates, the team leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns, is back for his junior season. Ricardo Louis, the hero from the Georgia game, has returned this spring with an added chip on his shoulder. Quan Bray and Marcus Davis, two reliable slot receivers from a year ago, are both back to solidify the position again in 2014.

Throw in former ESPN 300 stars Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker, who are both coming off their first seasons on the Plains, and what’s not to like if you’re Marshall?

“I think the biggest thing is the depth,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That is the biggest difference [from last spring]. We’ve got two, sometimes three at each position that at least have a good idea of what is going on. We’re trying to give those guys all a chance to show what they can do. That’s a good thing moving forward.”

Last spring, Bray was Auburn’s top returning wide receiver after catching only 14 passes in 2012. Nobody else on the roster had more than 10 catches the season before. Needless to say, the position was a huge question mark.

That’s no longer the case. There still might be questions as to who the go-to target will be -- though Coates filled that role admirably in 2013 -- but for the first time since the Tigers won the BCS title in 2010, there’s depth and experience at receiver.

"This year, I think it'll be more like everybody eats,” Stevens said. “Right now, we've got so many weapons on offense from the running back position to the offensive line to the skills. If you stop one of us, then you've got plenty more receivers in the slot, or at running back with Cam [Artis-Payne], Peyton [Barber] and Corey [Grant].”

The surplus at wide receiver has also led to more competition this spring, and more competition only makes the position better.

"Coach [Dameyune] Craig is really working hard to make us become the best receiving corps in the nation,” Louis said. “We do a lot of drills on and off the field. Times we don't have practice, we’ll be out together doing drills."

The orchestrator of the extra workouts has been Marshall. The dual-threat QB wants to improve as a passer, so he has made it a point to spend time with his receivers this offseason. Whether it’s after practice or in study hall, he’s taking them out to the field, working on specific routes and coaching them on what he wants them to do.

"We know to have a good season between quarterback and receiver you have to have a good relationship off the field and on the field,” Louis said.

The extra time has brought them closer to Marshall, but it’s also brought them closer to each other. Despite the fact that they’re all battling for playing time this spring, they still want to see each other do well.

“It’s a brotherhood for us,” Davis said. “Everybody’s together. Everybody wants to see each other do good, so we just correct each other and make plays. Everybody feels good when their brother makes a play.”

And the more plays made, the better Auburn will be this fall.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn’s five early enrollees arrived in January, their heads were spinning. They were balancing school and studying with workouts, meetings and everything else that comes with playing football. They went from high school, or junior college in some cases, to the daily grind at an SEC program.

It was a difficult adjustment and one that’s even harder now that spring practice has started, but each of them has a unique opportunity in front of him. Everybody gets a chance in the spring, and it’s no different for the newcomers.

[+] EnlargeD'haquille Williams
Courtesy of Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.Juco WR transfer D'haquille Williams has made a big first impression as an early enrollee at Auburn.
“Each guy is a little bit different that came in,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “There will be a few of them that will rotate with the first group or with the second group. The great thing about it is everybody’s getting reps. Everybody’s learning -- the offense, defense and special teams -- really at the same pace.”

The headliner of the group is wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s top junior college player a season ago and one of the more anticipated recruits ever to sign with Auburn. It was hard to miss his 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame the first day of practice, and he’s certainly impressed the coaches through the first week.

“You can tell why we needed him and why we wanted him,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He’s got God-given abilities that are really good, and I think he’ll really add value to our receiving corps.”

Williams has been one of the players who has rotated in with the first group early on, and he also has worked some with the kick and punt returners. His addition plus the return of Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis gives the Tigers a talented and deep group of wide receivers for quarterback Nick Marshall to throw to.

“[Williams] is very impressive,” Marshall said. “He’s a guy who will make a play for you when the ball is in the air. We’ve got great receivers this year. It’s going to be sick watching them.”

Although it’s Williams who has grabbed most of the attention, his junior college teammate Derrick Moncrief has been every bit as impressive through the first part of spring. The former Prattville (Ala.) star has played the lion’s share at boundary safety with Joshua Holsey still on the mend, and he has made the most of his opportunity.

“Moncrief has been an extremely pleasant surprise,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Thursday. “When you get a junior college player who’s not played in your system, you always wonder how long it’s going to take him to transition. He’s making some mistakes out there, as you would expect, but I think at this point, he is way beyond all the new safeties.”

The problem will be what to do with Moncrief when Holsey returns, but that’s a good problem to have, especially considering the lack of depth back there last year.

The only other junior college player to enroll early was offensive lineman Xavier Dampeer, and he, too, has drawn praise from the coaching staff. He’s currently backing up Reese Dismukes at center, a position that’s critical to the offense.

“He’s getting reps,” Malzahn said. “His snaps have been good. I thought his communication has been good the first few days. He seems like a really football-savvy guy. I think he likes to compete, so he’ll have a chance.”

For Chris Laye and Stanton Truitt, the two younger enrollees, the adjustment has been a little more difficult. It has been a little over two months since they finished their high school careers, and now they’re in college, practicing with the defending SEC champs.

Still, they’re getting an opportunity this spring and have an advantage over the rest of the 2014 signees who won’t arrive until the summer.

At the end of the day, the rookies are always going to make a mistake here or there. It’s that way at every school. But through the first week, Auburn’s early enrollees have not only shown potential. They’ve shown that they belong.

Room to improve: Wide receiver

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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.

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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn's Sammie Coates might not be a prototypical go-to wideout, but he will likely be Nick Marshall's top target this fall.
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.
Editor's note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Sammie Coates served as the "go-to" wide receiver for Auburn this past season, and though he exceeded expectations at times, he’d be the first to tell you the Tigers didn’t have a true No. 1 receiver.

“It's one thing I like about our team,” Coates said. “We really don't have that go-to guy. We have so much talent that you can't really depend on one guy.”

Coates led the Tigers with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns, but he had five or more catches in just two games and his season-high was only six catches. He could be better described as the team’s deep threat, its home run hitter. Coates was an integral part of the offense and arguably the most important pass-catcher on Auburn’s team, but a go-to wide receiver? Not so much.

Nobody ever emerged in that role for the Tigers.

[+] EnlargeCoates
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsSammie Coates emerged as a deep threat as a sophomore and will likely assume a larger role in the Auburn offense next season.
An argument can be made that because Auburn had the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense, there was never a need for a true No. 1 receiver. Quarterback Nick Marshall was busy running all over teams, therefore he didn’t have to pass.

However, the 2014 team won’t have Tre Mason, the SEC’s leading rusher. It won’t have Jay Prosch, the league’s best blocking fullback. And it won’t have left tackle Greg Robinson, a potential top-10 draft pick who was as good a run-blocker as there was in the conference.

In Gus Malzahn’s first season, Auburn ran it on more than 70 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. But that hasn’t always been the case in Malzahn’s offense, and it likely won’t going forward.

“Well, this year [Auburn ran the ball more], but if you look back, we’ve had years where we’ve thrown it a lot, and we are going to get more and more balanced next year,” Malzahn said.

If Auburn plans to throw it more, the Tigers need to find a true No. 1 receiver.

Coates is better suited as a deep threat, but he could still be the guy. He went from six catches as a freshman to 42 as a sophomore. He blossomed under his position coach, Dameyune Craig, and the chemistry between Coates and Marshall seemed to grow with every game.

“Sammie can really run,” Malzahn said before the BCS title game. “Coach Craig has done a wonderful job with him. He’s improved each game. Obviously, he gives us a deep threat. Any time you’ve got a guy who can run as tall as him and can jump, that’s a threat. When his time has come and when his number has been called, he’s delivered this year.”

Another option is Ricardo Louis. He had his moments, including a four-catch, 131-yard performance against Georgia, but there was never any consistency. Still, he might be the top true playmaker on the roster.

Freshman Marcus Davis, who played beyond his years, is also a candidate, along with senior-to-be Quan Bray. Each finished with 23 catches.

Another name to watch is junior college transfer D’haquille Williams, the No. 1 player in the ESPN JC 50 rankings. He’s 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and he gives Auburn a combination of size and talent that it lacked last year.

“He is a dynamic player that can run, catch and do all of the things it takes to be a great receiver,” Malzahn said.

Williams is already on campus as an early enrollee, and the nation will get its first glimpse of him in an Auburn jersey when spring practice begins in March. There’s no telling if he’ll live up to the hype and become a go-to wide receiver, but the Tigers need to find that guy if Marshall wants to take the next step as a passer.

Auburn to-do list: Finish strong

January, 20, 2014
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Editor's note: This is Part I in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a season to remember for Auburn. The Tigers were left out of the postseason a year ago, but under the direction of first-year coach Gus Malzahn, they went 12-1 -- winning nine straight at one point -- and made it all the way to Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

That’s where the dream ended, though. In similar fashion to how Auburn had won so many of its games, No. 1 Florida State scored a touchdown with just 13 seconds left to knock off the Tigers and close the book on the "team of destiny."

As disappointing as the loss was, it didn’t deter Malzahn and his coaching staff.

“The next day, I got up the same time, got in the office the same time,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got recruiting. We’ve got to move on. We’ve got to keep this thing going -- not a lot of time to rest.”

The focus turned toward Auburn’s recruiting class, currently ranked No. 9 in ESPN’s class rankings. The Tigers have 21 commitments, including five prospects that have already signed and enrolled for the spring semester. But the Tigers want to use the momentum from their championship run to finish strong in the weeks leading up signing day.

So what’s the strategy?

“Just filling overall needs,” Malzahn said. “There’s not really one area that stands out. Just more of the big picture and getting the right people in here.”

Over the weekend, Auburn played host to a handful of official visitors including ESPN 300 offensive tackle Braden Smith (Olathe, Kan./Olathe South) and four-star defensive ends Andrew Williams (McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing Christian) and Davon Godchaux (Plaquemine, La./Plaquemine), an LSU commitment. Auburn is thought to be the favorite for Williams, who tweeted a photo with Malzahn on Saturday.



The current class was also well-represented this weekend with the majority of Auburn’s commitments making the trip to the Plains, including in-state running back Racean Thomas (Oxford, Ala./Oxford) and rising quarterback Sean White (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./University School of Nova South).

Next weekend will be more of the same as ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) is expected to be on campus. It won’t be much of a drive for the hometown prospect, but it could be a crucial visit if the Tigers want to fend off in-state rival Alabama for his services. Evans took his official visit to Tuscaloosa this past weekend.

At this time a year ago, Auburn closed as strong as anybody and finished with the No. 11 class despite coming off a tumultuous 3-9 season. Nick Marshall, Marcus Davis, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel were among those who committed to the Tigers in the final month before signing day. All four made significant contributions this season.

Before the coaches can begin searching for a replacement at left tackle or retool a defense that lost five starters, they must focus on recruiting and finishing strong. The solution might still be out there, waiting to be had.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today's matchup is between Auburn’s wide receivers and Florida State’s defensive backs.

Auburn’s wide receivers: If there was ever a game for Auburn to stick to the run, this would be it. Quarterback Nick Marshall has struggled at times through the air and the Tigers are in for their most challenging test yet against a Florida State secondary that leads the nation in interceptions (25).

Expect a heavy dose of Marshall and Tre Mason running the read-option together like they’ve done all season.

Florida State still has to be wary of Auburn’s big-play ability. It starts with Sammie Coates who has emerged as a go-to wide receiver for the Tigers. He’s one of the fastest players in the SEC, if not the nation, and he leads the team with 38 catches for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s second nationally in yards per catch (22.1) and all seven of his scores have come from more than 35 yards. It was his 39-yard touchdown grab in the final minute against Alabama that put Auburn in position to win that game.

The problem for the Tigers is that nobody has emerged opposite Coates. Freshman Marcus Davis had his moments early in the season, making key catches in critical situations. Ricardo Louis, who hauled in the 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Georgia, might be the most dangerous athlete on the team. But neither has been consistent.

When Auburn plays Florida State, it’s going to need a play in the passing game from somebody other than Coates. Whether it’s Davis, Louis or even tight end C.J. Uzomah, who’s healthy again, somebody is going to have to step up and make a play when their number is called. Nothing will come easy, though, against a talented Seminoles’ secondary.

Florida State’s secondary: Only five teams threw less often this season than Auburn, which runs the ball on 72 percent of its plays. When the Tigers do throw, however, they’ve mustered some big plays -- averaging 14 yards per completion.

The recipe for Auburn is pretty simple -- run, run, run, then go deep. It’s a plan that may run into some trouble against Florida State, however. The Seminoles’ secondary is the nation’s best for the second straight season. Lamarcus Joyner leads a deep and talented group that leads the nation in fewest yards per attempt (4.9), most interceptions (25) and lowest QBR allowed (18.1). Opponents have completed just 6 of 36 passes thrown 20 yards or more against them this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Coates and Louis both have good size to win some battles downfield, but Florida State can match that physicality with P.J. Williams (6-0, 190) and Ronald Darby (5-11, 190), who have both been exceptional this year. Darby has allowed just seven completions this year and allows the fifth-lowest completion percentage among AQ-conference defensive backs in the nation.

Marshall can keep some plays alive with his legs, giving his receivers a chance to get open downfield, but Florida State hasn’t been burned often this year. Sammy Watkins, Allen Hurns and Devin Street all found some success this season, which should provide a bit of optimism for Coates, but no QB has managed better than 7 yards per attempt against FSU’s secondary all year. In its last eight games, Florida State’s secondary is allowing just 4.5 yards per attempt with 6 TDs and 19 INTs.

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State

Hale: Edge Florida State

Big win validates Auburn's turnaround

October, 19, 2013
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It's easy to say there's a new attitude, a fresh outlook and changed ways when a new coaching staff takes over. It's often true initially, but that energy only takes you so far. Results are what matter.

Auburn's 45-41 victory over No. 7 Texas A&M on Saturday at Kyle Field very well could be something coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers point to as a seminal moment should Auburn ride this wave to something much bigger. This program isn't a stranger to success, having won a BCS championship in 2010, but it was a wounded one last year, stumbling through a 3-9 season that included some downright embarrassing losses and a winless SEC campaign.

The No. 24 Tigers (6-1, 3-1 SEC) have their swagger back, and a road win over a top-10 team and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to show for it.

"This win means a lot for our confidence," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. "We're fighting for different things now."

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason shredded the A&M defense for 178 yards rushing as the Tigers rolled up 615 total yards.
Make no mistake, Saturday wasn't a fluke. The Tigers are a good football team and showed it. Offensively, they ran up and down the field on the Aggies (5-2, 2-2), whose defense did little to stop them in crunch time. They finished with 379 rushing yards (178 for Tre Mason, 100 for quarterback Nick Marshall), and they threw it all right, too. Marshall, a transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, was masterful with the read option and made some big-time throws (236 passing yards, two touchdowns).

Defensively, they conceded quite a bit, as teams that play Johnny Manziel and the Aggies tend to do. That's the price of admission when playing Texas A&M. But the Tigers took advantage of opportunities when afforded them and created some of their own. They turned two first-half interceptions of Manziel into 10 valuable points. They sacked Manziel three times -- twice to help seal the victory on the Aggies' final drive -- and while he still got his, statistically, they pressured him and made him feel uncomfortable just enough.

"You have to try to bottle up the guy," Malzahn said. "He's phenomenal when things break down. In the fourth quarter, when he came back, I thought we were a little bit fresher there, and we made the two big plays toward the end."

The Tigers showed significant growth from their last tough road test at LSU on Sept. 21, which was their only loss of the year. Perhaps most encouraging, when Auburn needed a score late in the fourth quarter, it earned it. Marshall engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 3:46. The Tigers had three third downs and converted every one of them on the drive. There was no panic, no hesitation. Mason and Marshall set the tone with the running game, and when Marshall had to make a critical throw, he did, finding Marcus Davis for 27 yards to get the Tigers to the A&M 12.

It's the second game-winning drive engineered by Marshall, who also did it in a 24-20 win over Mississippi State last month.

"We were very confident going into that last drive," Marshall said. "We knew we had to get into the end zone to win this big game. That was our mindset, and we were able to execute."

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesMike Evans finished with 11 catches for 287 yards and four touchdowns, season highs in all three.
For Texas A&M, it was another magnificent performance for two of its stars -- Manziel and Mike Evans -- but their magic made up for a lot of flaws. The defense is still poor. Only Western Carolina allowed Auburn to gain more yardage (615) than the Aggies surrendered Saturday. The 379 rushing yards allowed was a season high, far eclipsing the 306 the Aggies allowed to Rice in the season opener, when six key players missed all or parts of that game as a result of suspensions.

In their last two games, when the Aggies needed a late stop, they got it against both Arkansas and Ole Miss. Saturday they didn't.

"Towards the end of the game, they put their big-boy pads on, and we couldn't slow them down," Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "They took the game and the clock from us, and we couldn't get off the field."

While the defense continues to struggle and needs work, there were other areas the Aggies made mistakes, too. Manziel's first interception went off the hands of tight end Nehemiah Hicks, the second one was simply forced by Manziel after he peformed a magic escape. The Aggies also were called for illegal formation in the second quarter, a penalty that nullified a third-down conversion in the red zone, which eventually forced a field-goal try rather than having a first-and-goal at the Auburn 7.

Texas A&M wasn't where it normally is on third-down conversions either, converting 5-of-13 (the Aggies came into Saturday's game converting 57 percent). And when the defense strung together four stops late in the second quarter and early in the third, the Aggies were able to put up only 10 points. But as Snyder said afterward, "When you score 41 points, you should win. End of story."

Still, Manziel and Evans were fantastic. Manziel came back from what appeared to be a right shoulder injury to try to lead the Aggies back and finished with 454 yards and four touchdowns passing plus a rushing touchdown. Evans continues to make his case as college football's best receiver, catching 11 pass for 287 yards and four touchdowns.

The Aggies would have needed help by way of a loss or two by No. 1 Alabama to have a shot at their primary goal, getting to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. This pretty much takes that off the table. How will they respond moving forward?

"What's important now is not what has just happened," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "At this time of year, teams go a couple different directions. We've got to get back in here Monday, be honest with ourselves, make sure that what we can fix, we're going to fix as coaches and players and move on."

But this was Auburn's day. They got a huge win, one that should be a big boost to Malzahn and his efforts to lead Auburn back to among the nation's elite. No more looking back for the Tigers, only forward.

"I was almost in tears after the game," Ford said. "Definitely seeing guys, especially younger guys, who didn't have a clue of what was going on last year -- and that was a tough time for them, and I had to kind of guide them through that process -- and to see the looks on their faces after the game, the hard work that we put in, and how we said, 'We're not going to look back, just keep moving forward,' it's definitely a powerful message that we've sent to the world."
AUBURN, Ala. -- Every year it seems more and more freshmen are playing in college football. It’s no different in the SEC. Top programs like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU have started or played first-year players in critical games this season.

The same holds true for Auburn, which signed the No. 11 recruiting class this past February. Head coach Gus Malzahn has said he’s not afraid to play freshmen right off the bat as long as they’re talented enough.

So what’s the secret behind the freshmen impact in the college football?

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Carl Lawson had two sacks against Ole Miss.
“Physically, kids are coming out of programs -- they’ve got better strength programs -- they’re bigger, faster and stronger, naturally,” AU defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “They’re probably coached as good or better than they were, and I just think a lot of them are ready to play at that level, and we’re able to find a role for them to play.

“Some of them don’t have the competitiveness, some of them don’t have the temperament, some of them don’t have the fundaments, but heck, the physical talent -- you can look at some in high school and tell, these guys can play with us.”

Through the first five games, Auburn has already seen a number of freshmen contributions.

Defensive end Carl Lawson earned SEC freshmen of the week honors with his performance against Ole Miss last weekend. The five-star recruit finished with six tackles, including 3.5 for loss and two sacks.

Marcus Davis emerged as the go-to wide receiver when the Tigers trailed Mississippi State in the final minutes. He caught four passes for 38 yards on the game-winning drive and helped Auburn put an end to their SEC losing streak.

In the season opener, it was defensive tackle Montravius Adams who provided a much-needed spark for the defense when he entered the game and sacked the quarterback on his first play.

The Tigers are not yet to the halfway point of the season, but there are still plenty of freshmen waiting for their opportunity. If all goes well Saturday, there’s a strong possibility some of them might receive that chance against Western Carolina.

“First and foremost, we've got to go win the football game,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “And we've got to play well. But there are some guys like a Tony Stevens that you'd like to get more action. Marcus Davis is already playing more. I think a guy like an Avery Young, maybe try to get him more meaningful reps, too.”

On defense, the freshmen players who are most likely to see more action include the trio up front -- Adams, Lawson and Elijah Daniel -- cornerbacks Johnathan Ford and Kamryn Melton, and possibly Mackenro Alexander, a defensive back who recently moved to the Star position and played against Ole Miss.

“Mackenro got about nine reps to sub [Robenson Therezie], and I bet those reps, down the line, are going to help him,” Johnson said. “That’s the first time he’s had any true game experience. He did some good things. We hope in the future we can give him some rotation a little bit out there.”

But the freshmen who has received the most attention this week is quarterback Jeremy Johnson. The ESPN 300 recruit has yet to play a snap this season, but with starter Nick Marshall still questionable with a knee injury, there’s a chance the staff turns to Johnson on Saturday. He battled for the starting job during fall camp.

“We have not played him yet, and I know obviously it is getting to a point now where you have to do what is best for him and what is best for your team,” Malzahn said. “But he is still getting a lot of reps in practice and he is improving, there is no doubt.”

Five things: Auburn-Ole Miss

October, 5, 2013
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Historically, Ole Miss has struggled when it plays at Auburn. Its last win on the Plains came in 2003, when Eli Manning was still the quarterback. On Saturday, the Rebels will look to end the losing streak against a hungry Auburn team who has upset on its mind.

Track meet: The relationship between Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn has been well documented this week. They’re close friends who both started out coaching high school football, and they like to go fast. Don’t expect a lot of huddles when the two get together Saturday. Freeze once ran 117 plays when he was a head coach at Lambuth University, while Malzahn has nearly reached the century mark twice during his FBS coaching career. It will no doubt be a fun game to watch and a difficult one to keep up with. Conditioning could play a major factor for both teams, especially towards the end of the game.

Wallace watch: Which Bo Wallace will show up this Saturday? The one who led Ole Miss past Vanderbilt and Texas, using both his arm and his feet, or the one who struggled against Alabama after predicting they would score on the Crimson Tide like it was nothing? Ole Miss fans hope it’s the player they saw in the first three games. Wallace is still one of just two FBS quarterbacks with at least 115 pass attempts who has yet to throw an interception. He’s thrown for 807 yards with four touchdowns and no picks, while rushing for 125 yards and three scores. The Rebels need to him to bounce back from last week’s game and play well against Auburn.

Stopping the run: The quarterbacks will play a role Saturday, but when both Auburn and Ole Miss have had success this season, they have been able to run the football. When the Rebels won on the road at Vanderbilt and at Texas, Jeff Scott rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown. The Tigers, led by running backs Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, rushed for right around 300 yards in wins over Washington State and Arkansas State to open the season. Both teams will try and establish the rushing attack early on, and neither defense has shown the ability to slow down the run yet this season.

Fresh faces: During his weekly press conference, Malzahn made light of the Ole Miss freshmen and said both he and Freeze are not afraid to play freshmen right away if they’re talented enough. The Tigers haven’t seen as many significant contributors, but they’re hoping that first-year wide receivers Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens will step in the absence of Jaylon Denson, who was lost for the season with a knee injury. The most intriguing matchup will be between Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson. They were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the 2013 ESPN 300.

Karen effect: Tropical Storm Karen is expected to hit the Gulf Coast and the state of Alabama sometime Saturday, and the precipitation could make its way up to Auburn for the game. There’s no telling what either team is in store for, but both teams practiced using wet balls this week just in case. It will likely slow down the tempo and put a premium on ball security. Auburn dealt with rain the last time out when they played at LSU, and it resulted in three turnovers in the first half alone. The Tigers will be playing in a much more conducive atmosphere this time around, but they have to be able to hang on to the ball if Karen hits during the game.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
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From defensive struggles to quarterback quandaries to head coach hot-stove talk to even nature walks, there's plenty going on in SEC football this week. Here's a sampling of discussion points from around the league:

Auburn loses WR Denson for the season

September, 25, 2013
9/25/13
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Auburn’s search for a go-to wide receiver took a hit on Wednesday when it learned that starter Jaylon Denson will miss the remainder of the season. Denson had three catches for 45 yards prior to injuring his knee in the first half against LSU last week.

The 6-foot-3 junior was the team’s best downfield blocker and an integral part of the run game. The coaching staff will now have to find a replacement as they continue to look for playmakers to emerge at receiver.

“It’s going to have to be by committee from here on out,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of the wide receiver group. “It’s good that we have an off week that we can working some guys, and right now, we’re rotating a whole bunch of guys. After this week, we’ll kind of settle in on our plan moving forward.”

The primary targets through four games have been Quan Bray, Sammie Coates, Marcus Davis and Ricardo Louis. Coates leads the team with 11 catches for 306 yards and finished with a team-best 139 yards against LSU.

With Denson out, former Alabama signee Melvin Ray and true freshman Tony Stevens could also be in line for more work. Stevens, an ESPN 300 recruit coming out of high school, caught his first two career passes on Saturday.

(Read the full post here)

Marcus Davis playing beyond his years

September, 17, 2013
9/17/13
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Freshman wide receiver Marcus Davis might have dropped a pass in Saturday’s win over Mississippi State -- a typical freshman mistake -- but quarterback Nick Marshall wasn’t concerned about it. He knew he was going to look his way again, and with the game on the line, he did.

On the last drive, Davis caught four passes for 38 yards to help Auburn move down the field and score the game-winning touchdown.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Davis
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesThrough three games, Auburn freshman Marcus Davis has 8 catches for 66 yards and a score.
“He developed well tonight because he came through on some of those catches,” Marshall said. “I know he had dropped one, but I told him don’t worry about it. I was going to come back to him.”

For the game, Davis led all Auburn receivers with six catches, but it was his impact on the final drive that drew rave reviews from the coaching staff.

“I was really proud of him,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “For a freshman, he came in, he made a lot of big catches, and he was smart. He caught it and got out of bounds, or he caught it and got the first down. … He responded the same way the whole offense did, ‘Hey, this is just another drive. The moment's not too big for us.’”

Through the first two games this season, he only had two catches, but when his number was called, he delivered. Nerves were never part of the equation for the young man, even with the game on the line.

“To be honest, I wasn’t even looking at it that way,” Davis said. “I was just out there playing football.”

That’s been his way since high school where he was a 5-foot-9, 175-pound quarterback as a senior. When he committed to Auburn, he knew he was going to have to switch positions, but he still had every expectation to play early and to play often. In his same recruiting class, the Tigers landed a trio of ESPN 300 wide receivers, all of whom were ranked higher than he was, but he didn’t care. He was going to play as a freshman.

“I just play with a chip on my shoulder,” Davis said. “I don’t even look into the politics or anything like that. I just play football.”

Through the first three games, two of the aforementioned receivers have yet to record a catch while the other failed to qualify academically and landed in junior college.

More importantly, Davis is emerging as the potential go-to wide receiver in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Veteran targets Quan Bray and Sammie Coates have each have hauled in a long touchdown reception early in the season, but it was Davis who looked to be Marshall’s No. 1 target down the stretch.

Part of that is what the defense gave Marshall on the last drive, but part too is the developing chemistry between the first-year quarterback and the first-year wide receiver. The two hooked up for a touchdown the week before, the first for both players.

“Each and every week, we’re growing up,” Davis said. “I just feel like it’s going to continue. We’re going to continue to grow together.”

It’s still too early to tell if Davis becomes that go-to wide receiver for Auburn, but he will have plenty of opportunities to claim the role after his performance against Mississippi State.

“Marcus is a guy that, he’s a freshman, but he’s not playing like a freshman,” Malzahn said. “He’s really stepped up and you’ll see him on the field more.”

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