Auburn Tigers: Sammie Coates

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.

[+] EnlargeCoates
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.

SEC lunch links

March, 28, 2014
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While college basketball teams are punching their tickets to the Elite Eight, the SEC's best quarterback of the last two seasons might have cemented his position as an elite talent in the NFL draft.
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.

SEC's lunch links

March, 27, 2014
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The words "revolutionary" and "game-changing" are prominent in the aftermath of Wednesday's ruling by a federal agency that college athletes at Northwestern University are school employees and can form a union. The SEC had this to say:
"Notwithstanding today's decision, the SEC does not believe that full time students participating in intercollegiate athletics are employees of the universities they attend," commissioner Mike Slive said in a written statement.

Former South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles came out against the idea of college football players unions.

Elsewhere in the South, spring practice and NFL scouting continued as if the earth had not spun off its axis.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Nick Marshall sat in the film room and watched last year’s tape with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, he saw all of his flaws. He wasn’t making the right reads. He was handing the ball off when he should’ve kept it. He was overthrowing his wide receivers or throwing it behind them. He was tentative at times, afraid to make a mistake.

He didn’t look ready.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's coaches are looking for significant improvement in Nick Marshall's completion percentage.
To his defense, Marshall showed up at Auburn over the summer and had very little time to learn the offense. He had his natural abilities, but playing for Gus Malzahn in the SEC was a far cry from his days of playing in junior college.

“If somebody could go out there and try to play quarterback for us I think it would blow their mind,” Malzahn said. “Just pre-snap what they have to do, communication, get everything straight before they even look at the defense. There’s a lot to it.”

After watching tape from earlier games against LSU and Texas A&M, Lashlee fast forwarded to the Tennessee game. It was like night and day. Marshall completed his first two passes, and midway through the first quarter, he dropped back, went through his progressions, looked off a safety and threw a gorgeous touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah.

Those turned out to be his only three completions in the game, but you could see the poise, the moxie. He was confident again and in control of the offense.

Two months later, Marshall had maybe his best game passing of the season when Auburn played Florida State in the BCS title game. He went 14-of-27 for 217 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in a 34-31 loss to Seminoles. The quarterback who showed up that game looked completely different than the one who was missing throws early in the season.

Fast forward again. Spring practice has started for the Tigers, and the quarterback who sits in the film room with Lashlee is even further along than the one who lost in Pasadena. It’s only been a week, but Marshall already looks like he’s in midseason form.

“It's just the way he's carrying himself,” Malzahn said. “You can tell he's getting more comfortable, and the game's a lot slower for him. He’s had a solid first week.”

As the game slows down, Marshall’s passing picks up. He missed his fair share of deep balls last season, but according to his receivers, he’s been putting them on the money this spring. He’s also been crisper on the short routes and looks more comfortable in the pocket.

“I’m seeing an NFL-caliber quarterback right now, and it’s just the spring,” senior receiver Quan Bray said. “He’s making throws that he wasn’t making last year.”

“Nick’s throwing the ball real good,” fellow target Sammie Coates added. “It’s going to be a shock to the world what he’s going to do when he puts it all together.”

It’s not like running the ball didn’t work for Auburn last year. The Tigers led the nation in rushing, and their offense carried them all the way to the national championship game. However, with an experienced Marshall and a talented group of skill players around him, Malzahn expects his quarterback to throw it more this fall.

“Nick's a very talented player, not just running, he can really throw it,” Malzahn said. “I know I said that a lot during the fall, but now that he's got a spring, he'll be more comfortable, more reactive and we feel very good about him throwing the football."

Just because Marshall was known more for his rushing abilities last season doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy throwing it. He threw for 3,142 yards the year before while in junior college.

But the goal is not just to have Marshall throw it more. The goal is to have him throw it more and throw it at a higher completion rate. Last week, Lashlee said he wants his quarterback to complete between 65 and 70 percent of his throws. That would be a significant improvement from a year ago when Marshall had a 59.4 completion percentage.

“It’s a goal,” Marshall said. “It should be a goal. The expectations for us are high this year. I’m just going to do what the [coaches] tell me and complete the passes like they want me to. I’ll go through all my progressions and not turn the ball over.”

The expectations are high for Auburn this year, and its success rides on both the legs and the arm of its quarterback. The Tigers will go where Marshall takes them.
This is Part III of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- In 2013, Auburn ran it 72 percent of the time. That means for every time they threw a pass, they ran it three times. That’s closing in on teams such as Air Force, Georgia Tech and Navy, and yet, the Tigers don’t run a triple-option offense -- not a traditional one, anyway.

Even Gus Malzahn, a run-first head coach, would say his Auburn team ran the ball a lot last season. In fact, no team he has coached at the college level has run that much. The closest would’ve been when he was AU’s offensive coordinator in 2010 and the Tigers ran 69 percent of the time, but traditionally, his teams have had more of a 60-40 split.

[+] EnlargeCoates
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsSammie Coates returns after leading Auburn with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns.
So to say that Auburn will be more balanced on offense in 2014 isn’t exactly going out on a limb.

Tre Mason, the SEC’s leading rusher, is gone. Greg Robinson, the league’s best run-blocking offensive tackle, left after his sophomore year. And Jay Prosch, arguably one of the nation’s top blocking fullbacks, played his last game against Florida State.

It’s still Auburn, though, and Malzahn is still the coach which means the Tigers are going to run it more often than they throw it. You can take that to the bank. However, don’t be surprised if the split on next year’s team is closer to 60-40 as opposed to 70-30.

How’s this for a prediction? Quarterback Nick Marshall will average at least 10 more passing attempts per game next season. That’s 27 for those counting at home.

Too many? Keep in mind that Auburn has its top four receivers back including Sammie Coates, the team leader with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. Marshall will also have tight end C.J. Uzomah, his go-to target down in the red zone, at his disposal.

But the real reason isn’t Coates or Uzomah. It’s the addition of the top 2014 junior college player in the nation, wide receiver D'haquille Williams.

From his RecruitingNation scouting report: “[Williams] has terrific tools and phenomenal ball skills/body control to consistently make plays even when covered. Possesses premier, immediate impact ability, but still must learn little nuances of the position.”

The incoming star has already enrolled and could be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver by the end of the spring. If nothing else, he and Coates should form a receiving tandem that’s as good as any other in the SEC. How can you not throw to that?

This will also be Marshall’s first spring practice with the team, and the emphasis will be on his improvement as a passer.

“He throws the ball well,” Malzhan said after the season. “I think the big thing is just getting his timing down with him and his receivers. And probably just giving him a little more freedom now that he will know the offense even better.

“Week to week, you have a game plan. It was good for him having that 30 days [prior to the BCS title game]. I think you could see that in the passing game. We’re looking forward to spring.”

Malzahn will also have Jeremy Johnson this spring, an asset he didn’t have a year ago at this time. The backup quarterback, considered a better passer than Marshall, threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman. He could be in for a bigger role this coming season as the staff looks to find news ways to get him involved.

Ultimately, Auburn will still be a run-first team, but if the Tigers wants to play to their strengths and utilize all of their weapons, that means a more balanced offense on the Plains in the fall.

Players to watch: WR Sammie Coates

February, 28, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is part five in a weeklong series looking at five Auburn players to watch this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn starts spring practice on March 18, all eyes will be on incoming wide receiver D'haquille Williams, the No. 1 junior college player in the country. He’s big, fast, strong, and many think he could become the team’s top wide receiver by the time Arkansas comes to town in August.

“He’s got unbelievable skills,” coach Gus Malzahn said on signing day. “I got a chance to get to know him back in his high school days and really think that he’ll have a chance to be an impact player right off the bat.”

Wide receivers’ coach Dameyune Craig went as far as to say Williams could have a Jameis Winston-like impact when he suits up for Auburn next season.

[+] EnlargeSammie Coats
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsCan Sammie Coates become a go-to wide receiver instead of being just a deep threat?
That’s high praise for a kid who has yet to catch a pass for the Tigers, but let’s not forget about Sammie Coates, the team’s No. 1 wide receiver from this past season. Coates, who caught just six passes the year before, led the team with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns.

“Sammie can really run,” Malzahn said prior to the BCS title game. “Coach Craig has done a wonderful job with him. He’s improved with each game.

“Obviously, he gives us a deep threat. Any time you have 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.”

The only knock on Coates is that he’s still considered to be just a deep-threat as opposed to the go-to wide receiver. It’s hard to argue with his stats, but when you average only three receptions per game, that’s the label you get.

That’s why this upcoming spring is so important for Coates. He’s entering his junior year and has a chance to emerge as one of the top wide receivers in the SEC.

He and quarterback Nick Marshall already have a strong connection, as was evident last year. He has improved as a player without the ball, blocking better and running more precise routes. But will he ever get his opportunity to take the next step in Auburn’s run-heavy offense?

“I’m just looking forward to winning,” Coates said when asked if he ever wanted a more balanced offense. “Coach Malzahn has got a great plan every time we go out there. I’m just going to follow him and whatever he does.”

The presence of a high-profile wide receiver like Williams would seem to hurt Coates’ chances, but it could be looked at as a good thing, too. It’s likely that Coates will see less double teams, and it gives him motivation heading into the season, a chip on his shoulder that might not have been there before.

It’s still unclear how much Auburn will throw the ball this coming season, but the continuing emergence of Coates and how he co-exists with Williams will play a major factor in Malzahn’s plans. We’ll get our first look at the two together this spring.

Room to improve: Wide receiver

February, 20, 2014
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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.

[+] EnlargeSammie Coats
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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Gus Malzahn returned to the Plains in December 2012, he assembled a top-15 recruiting class in less than two months. It was a class that was impressive given Auburn’s record the year before, but it also featured a number of impact players who contributed to the Tigers’ BCS title run this past season.

“That's the way we recruit,” Malzahn said recently. “Nowadays you're going to recruit guys you think can come in and make an impact right off the bat.”

It’s no surprise that Auburn’s 2014 class, which signed last week, was also full of instant-impact type players. The emphasis might have been on the defensive side, but there are plenty of playmakers who could help the offense early on.

WR D'haquille Williams
Laplace, La./Miss. Gulf Coast CC
Synopsis: There’s not a player in the class with higher expectations than Williams. He comes in as the No. 1 junior college player in the country. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, he looks SEC ready, and he plays a position that should get him on the field early. Sammie Coates enjoyed a breakout year for Auburn this past season, but Coates is better suited as a deep threat. Williams, on the other hand, can be more of a possession wide receiver, and if all goes well, he could be the one who emerges as the go-to guy for Nick Marshall. It doesn’t hurt that he enrolled in January and will participate in spring practice. The expectations are high, but Williams is the type of player who could thrive in the right offense and with the right team.
Malzahn’s take: “He’s the No. 1 rated junior college player in the country. He’s got unbelievable skills. I got a chance to get to know him back in his high school days and really think he’ll have a chance to be an impact player right off the bat.”

Racean Thomas
Courtesy of IntersportESPN 300 RB Racean Thomas ought to fit well in Gus Malzahn's Auburn offense.
RB Racean Thomas
Oxford (Ala.) High School
Synopsis: There were rumblings that Alabama passed on Thomas as a part of its effort to land top recruit Leonard Fournette. If that’s the case, the Crimson Tide might be kicking themselves for years to come. Thomas was easily one of the top players in the state, and the No. 5 running back nationally. He comes to Auburn as a perfect fit for Malzahn’s offense and as a guy who should get a look this fall. When Tre Mason left early for the NFL, it created an opportunity at running back, and though there might be more experienced candidates ahead of him, Thomas has the talent and ability to move up quickly on the depth chart. He wants to play early, and he’ll do everything in his power to make it happen.
Malzahn’s take: “He was the top running back on our board. Our offensive staff identified him early. They recruited him extremely hard. He’s a kid in this class who was very loyal to us. He could’ve went anywhere and chose not to. He stayed with us. We really feel like he’s got the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact.”

OG Braden Smith
Olathe (Kan.) South High School
Synopsis: Auburn took a hit when starting left tackle Greg Robinson declared early for the NFL draft, but had he not done that, there’s a strong possibility Smith would have not been a part of the this class. Malzahn admitted that he and his staff started recruiting ESPN 300 offensive lineman late, but they did just enough to lure him to the Southeast. It won’t be easy for Smith to crack the starting rotation with four of the five starters returning for Auburn, but he has the versatility to make an impact somewhere this fall. He’s listed as a guard and could become the top backup at both guard spots, but he can also move over and play tackle, which automatically makes him a candidate to replace Robinson at left tackle.
Malzahn’s take: “I think he gives us some flexibility -- at tackle, or he can move to guard. He can really run, and he’s stronger than your average freshman coming in. He’s very serious. The way you all see him on TV, that’s the way he is. He doesn’t say a whole lot. He’s football. He’s working out. He’s our type of guy.”
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.

Video: Auburn WR Sammie Coates

January, 7, 2014
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Chris Low talks with Auburn receiver Sammie Coates following the Tigers' loss to FSU in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

Breaking down Auburn's offense

January, 5, 2014
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When last seen on a football field, Auburn’s offense looked unstoppable.

The Tigers mowed through Missouri for an SEC championship game record 677 total yards to pull away for a 59-42 victory. Missouri had a hard enough time finding the ball that day in Atlanta, much less slowing down Auburn’s running game.

Auburn piled up 545 rushing yards in that contest and enters Monday’s Vizio BCS National Championship with an astonishing 1,608 rushing yards in its past four games.

Several of the defensive coordinators who faced Auburn’s offense this season told ESPN.com that clamping down on quarterback Nick Marshall’s ability to run the football was a must if you’re going to keep Auburn from revving up that offensive machine.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLimiting QB Nick Marshall's ability to run is a key to containing Auburn's offense. But that's easier said than done.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when the Tigers are playing at breakneck pace and Marshall is averaging 9 yards per carry on zone-read plays.

“You’ve got to account for Marshall, which means you better have athletic safeties who can tackle him,” Tennessee defensive coordinator John Jancek said. “That’s where we got exposed because he’s exceptional at taking off and making athletic plays in space.”

Jancek saw Marshall toward the latter part of the season, when he was playing his best football. So did Georgia, and Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said Marshall was much improved as a passer.

“Nick has really grown into the position and is much better now than he was at the start of the season,” Grantham said. “He’s got a cannon for an arm and can make plays. He’s really an NFL cornerback. That’s what he is, but he can throw the deep ball, and he’s really good in that offense and gives them another dimension because it truly is 11-on-11 with his ability to run the football.”

Marshall and junior running back Tre Mason both rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season, a telltale sign that the Tigers were doing something right up front.

Both Grantham and LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis said Auburn’s offensive line was the best one they faced all season.

“You’ve got to be ready to play the tempo game and tackle well, but don’t let anybody kid you,” Chavis said. “They’ve got a lot of really good football players in the offensive line. We didn’t play against a better offensive line this year, and I don’t think people are giving that offensive line enough credit.”

LSU was the only team to beat Auburn this season after jumping out to a 21-0 halftime lead and then holding on for a 35-21 rain-soaked win back in September.

“You have to be able to handle all their different looks on the perimeter,” Chavis said. “It will look like the same run, and they’ll end up throwing it. They’re not going to let you cheat and get an extra guy in there. They’re going to put you in a lot of one-on-one situations, and you have to be able to tackle. If not, you’re going to have a hard time with them.”

Ole Miss defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said one of the things Auburn coach Gus Malzahn does best is disguising what he’s doing.

“He’ll use motion and shifts and those types of things, and it doesn't give the players enough time in their heads to recognize it,” Wommack said. “He’ll create the same play over and over again, but it won’t necessarily look the same on the field.

“I’m anxious to see this game. Gus is going to run his offense, but it won’t look the same to Florida State. That’s why Gus is so good. He’ll have some special things.”

Grantham could see Florida State being more multiple in its defensive line and using some three-man fronts.

“An odd front gives Auburn more trouble than an even front,” Grantham said. “I think they’re much better at blocking an even front than they are an odd front. But Auburn is multiple enough to find something it likes and sticking with it.

“Their tempo didn’t bother us. I think that’s a little bit overrated. It’s more their formations, movement, skill of their players and that offensive line. Florida State will have more things in [its] arsenal to stop them and may be able to create more negative plays and get them into third-and-6 or more, and that’s when you’ve got them.”

Even though Auburn doesn’t throw it much, Grantham said sophomore receiver Sammie Coates can change the game in a hurry. Coates averages 22.1 yards per catch and has seven touchdown receptions.

“He’s going to be a steal in the NFL draft,” Grantham said. “With Marshall, you've got to commit extra people to get to the quarterback, which leaves you one-on-one outside with Coates. He’s got the physical skill set to win most of those battles.”
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
AUBURN, Ala. -- Sammie Coates' voice didn't tremble when he spoke. He didn't pound his fist or raise his voice. He kept both hands on the podium, looked each reporter in the eye and answered every question with restraint in one of the most candid interviews you'll see from an athlete on any level.

Still, it was called a rant, a tirade, a young player pitching a fit.

If what Coates said had come from an established leader or, even better, a coach, we'd look back on Oct. 9, 2012, as a seminal moment in the football program at Auburn. We'd hear common sense, passion and a determination to turn things around from a freshman acting well beyond his years. We'd see how at least one player understood that Auburn lacked leadership and how his teammates needed motivation.

"Some of us need to see the picture for what it is," said Coates, then an unknown receiver with three career catches to his name. "So many older guys want it, but don't want it bad enough."

His soliloquy went on for nearly nine minutes: "Nobody is showing how they want to win. ... We just keep falling in a hole. ... Nobody is stepping up. ... We go out there [to practice] dead. ... To win, we have to let that anger go."

But no one listened. Then-coach Gene Chizik said that Coates' message was only "one guy's opinion." Linebacker Jake Holland said he didn't see any "finger-pointing" in the locker room.

Auburn was 1-4 when Coates spoke that day. The Tigers went on to finish 3-9, winless in the SEC. The entire coaching staff was fired. Whatever "new day" Auburn's newest coach Gus Malzahn offered seemed a long way off.

Coates knew two things: He never wanted to lose like that again and he had to get better, on and off the field.

 




"I really wasn't into football like I was supposed to have been," Coates admitted a few weeks ago while his team prepared to face Florida State for the VIZIO BCS National Championship. "This year I'm into everything. Football, I’m more focused on that. I’m more focused on helping others and more focused on my schoolwork. It’s really helped me be levelheaded and keep a solid mind."

[+] EnlargeCoates
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAuburn wideout Sammie Coates caught 38 passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
Coates has always had a lot on his mind. He lost his father, Sammy Sr., in a work accident when he was 10 years old and Sharon, his mother, raised him on her own while working at a gas station near their home in Leroy, Ala. A tattoo on Sammie's chest reads, "Like Father, Like Son," but outwardly he has never expressed much pain.

"He seemed to be an outgoing kid," said Danny Powell, who coached football at Leroy High. "It didn't make him inverted or anything. He's just a really good guy."

Coates lost five games in his entire career at Leroy, winning state titles as a sophomore and senior. When he wasn't playing football, he was throwing in the low 90s and drawing the attention of Major League Baseball scouts.

In other words, Coates wasn't used to failing. He was, in the words of Powell, "A big small-town hero."

It took time for colleges to notice Coates, who was then a slender 180-pound athlete with great speed and tons of untapped potential. He started drawing the attention of scouts before his junior year, but he broke his ankle and didn't make it back until second game of his senior year. He committed to Southern Miss before former Auburn assistant Phillip Lolley took a flier and invited him to camp.

Coates ran a 4.35 40-yard dash and caught a number of passes over future Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, according to Powell. Auburn offered on the spot and he signed with the Tigers a month after they won the BCS National Championship.

"He has that thing you can't teach," Powell said. "He had a knack of making the spectacular play."

Coates injured his knee his first season on campus and was forced to redshirt. The next year he got to play some, but between losing and dropping some passes, frustration grew. He'd smile on the outside -- even during his so-called "rant" he flashed appeared optimistic -- but inside he felt the need to change.

When he spoke to the media that October day, he wore a bright orange Auburn sweater that read, "Protect this house." But as he threw open the program's doors to reveal its flaws, he neglected his own.

He talked the talk, but this season he chose to walk it, too. A year after pointing out the flaws of others, he and teammate Trovon Reed were baptized.

"Really, both of us became leaders on the team, and it's one of the big things that helped us out," Coates said. "I'm so thankful to him coming up and talking to me about doing it. It was one of the biggest steps I could have made in my life."

 




His feet now firmly planted, Coates has emerged as one to watch in the BCS title game. At 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds with speed to burn, he's a matchup nightmare for Florida State. He's in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and touchdowns, and trails only Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks nationally for the most receptions of 30 yards or more.

While Auburn's running game gains most of the attention, it's Coates' ability to stretch the field that makes Malzahn's offense go. Without him keeping defenses honest, Nick Marshall and Tre Mason would face nine and 10 men in the box.

"Any time you’ve got a guy who can run as tall as him, and can jump, that’s a threat," Malzahn said.

Coates credits the entire coaching staff for being a father figure, with wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig improving his play on the field while helping him "grow up and become a better man" off of it.

But when asked about Malzahn, his eyes lit up. When Malzahn was hired, everything changed. His competitiveness and positivity, Coates said, was infectious.

"Oh, man, he's a genius," Coates said. "He is unique. He's one of those guys that loves the game and he's going to put his all into it no matter what.

Whatever complaints Coates had before are now gone. Instead of getting his message confused for a negative rant, it's all praise.

"Malzahn, he comes in and tells us it's a new day and we're not going to have what we had last year, the team really bought into it," he said. "If you weren't going to be part of his new day, he wasn't going to have you here. He was going to get rid of you. That's Malzahn's mindset and that makes you work harder. … We just bought in, we fought together, we started coming closer as a team and that really helped us."

Who to watch in the SEC bowl games

December, 26, 2013
12/26/13
11:45
AM ET
Now that we’ve opened all of our Christmas presents and spent some quality time with family, it’s full speed ahead to the bowl games.

We know who the stars are in the SEC. But here’s a checklist of guys to watch in the bowl games who aren’t the usual suspects and aren’t necessarily household names ... yet.

Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn: The Tigers make their living running the ball, but Coates averages 22.1 yards per catch and has seven touchdown receptions. Auburn is going to need some big plays in the passing game to take down Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

Tony Conner, S, Ole Miss: Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil got most of the pub this season among the Ole Miss freshmen, but Conner is a big-time player in his own right and will play a huge role in the Rebels’ defensive efforts against Georgia Tech’s option offense.

Markus Golden, DE, Missouri: Even though he played behind All-American Michael Sam, Golden was hard to miss this season after making the move from linebacker to end. He had 13 tackles for loss, including 6 1/2 sacks, and will be looking to make amends (similar to the entire Missouri defense) after the way the Tigers were shredded in the SEC championship game.

Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi State: If you’re looking for one of the most promising freshman defensive linemen in the country, keep your eyes on Jones in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. He’s freakishly big, athletic and disruptive.

Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama: Recently elected as one of Alabama’s permanent team captains, Norwood is as steady as they come. All he does is make big catches on big stages. In other words, look for him to come up big against Oklahoma in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.

Patton Robinette, QB, Vanderbilt: It’s Robinette’s show now that Austyn Carta-Samuels is recovering from ACL surgery. Robinette had the game-winning touchdown against Tennessee on the fake jump pass. He has the smarts and tools to be an excellent quarterback in this league, and leading the Commodores to a ninth win (for the second year in a row) would be a perfect way to head into what will be critical offseason for Robinette.

Shaq Roland, WR, South Carolina: With Damiere Byrd out for the Capital One Bowl with a knee injury, Roland becomes an even bigger part of the Gamecocks’ passing game. He has gobs of talent, and after a slow start to the season he began to play up to his talent level down the stretch.

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