AUBURN — Seth Williams made a bold declaration late last month. He said he wanted Auburn to turn into “Wide Receiver U.”
“Touchdowns, making plays. When the ball comes, jumping over people’s heads. Moss-ing them,” the sophomore said. “Things like that, we can change it around here.”
It certainly would be a change. “Running Back U?” Definitely. Bo Jackson, Rudi Johnson, Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown, Tre Mason, Kerryon Johnson and many more provide evidence of that. You could make an argument for “Defensive Line U,” too — Quentin Groves, Dee Ford, Nick Fairley, Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Jeff Holland have each gone from Auburn to the NFL over the past 15 years, and Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe will soon follow.
But “Wide Receiver U?” Auburn isn’t exactly known for churning out successful pass-catchers. There have been an average of 36 1,000 receivers per season across Division I college football over the past 10 years. The Tigers have only two in program history — Terry Beasley in 1972 and Ronney Daniels in 1999.
You wouldn’t have known that watching Saturday’s A-Day spring game. The four quarterbacks battling for the starting job — Joey Gatewood, Bo Nix, Malik Willis and Cord Sandberg — were the story, but the wide receivers they were throwing to proved the biggest stars.
Williams, Matthew Hill, Eli Stove, Sal Cannella and Marquis McClain combined to catch 17 passes for 328 yards (an average of 19.3 per catch) and five touchdowns, and they did it all playing without speedster Anthony Schwartz and senior Will Hastings.
“It’s just not two of us, it’s not one of us, it’s not like three of us — it’s the whole group,” Williams said. “We’re all going to put up numbers this year.”
Williams was a walking highlight reel on the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The 6-foot-4, 224-pound sophomore was responsible for four of those receptions and turned them into 103 yards and a pair of scores on his way to earning offensive MVP honors.
He made a toe-tapping catch on a 38-yard throw from Nix down the right sideline to set up one touchdown and scored two of his own on leaping grabs in end zone on throws of 11 and 29 yards from Gatewood. The second of those might have been the play of the day — safety Jamien Sherwood was in front of him and corner Roger McCreary trailing behind, and Williams high-pointed the ball over the top of both of them.
“I played the ball, for real,” Williams said. “Once I see the ball in the air, I knew the DB was not going to see it because he was looking at me. He’s trying to dictate what he’s going to do off of me. So I’ve got the upper hand on it, so I’m playing the ball more than I’m playing off of the DB.”
And that wasn’t even Williams’ favorite highlight Saturday. He actually preferred the one made by Hill, who made an over-the-shoulder grab in traffic on a 41-yard throw by Willis to score the game’s first touchdown. He also caught the game’s final score on a 49-yard strike over the middle from Nix and finished the afternoon leading everyone with 14 targets, five receptions and 128 receiving yards.
It was a coming-out party of sorts for the 6-foot-1, 190-pound redshirt freshman out Lawrenceville, Ga., who did not catch a pass during as a true freshman season last year despite coming in as a higher-ranked recruit than both Williams (26 catches, 534 yards) and Schwartz (22 catches, 357 yards).
“All my work is now showing off,” Hill said. “All spring, I’ve been showing the coaches why I should’ve played last year.”
Another player who didn’t play much last season, Stove, also made his presence felt Saturday, turning four receptions into 63 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown from Nix. More than maybe anyone else on the roster, the junior was just thrilled to be out there and able to play — he suffered a torn ACL last spring that limited him to only four games and three catches this past season.
But Stove is only a year removed from a 2017 season during which he totaled 265 yards on 29 receptions and 315 more on 30 carries, and he looked a lot like that player Saturday in what he said was his first action since he was allowed to shed the knee brace he’s been wearing for nearly a year.
“Eli is a guy that we missed him sorely last year,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s an NFL-type player, and really worked hard on the intermediate routes and the deep routes. When he gets the ball in his hands, he can really do some things. I’m very excited to have him back.”
Yes, it was only a spring scrimmage, and the bulk of that damage was done playing against Auburn’s second-team secondary and pass-rush. But it’s difficult not to get excited about the potential of Auburn’s group of pass-catchers.
McClain and Cannella supplemented the leading trio with four catches for 34 yards combined; H-back/tight end John Samuel Shenker hauled in three passes for 18 yards; and Harold Joiner caught three passes for 28 yards in a dual running back/slot receiver role similar to the one Kerryon Johnson played as a freshman.
When Schwartz (who is missed spring practice as he focuses on the track season) and Hastings (who was cleared to return from a torn ACL on Saturday) join that group in the fall, they’ll bring even more speed and playmaking ability — Hastings caught 26 passes for 525 yards and four touchdowns two seasons ago.
“It will be a pretty good group. It will be exciting to see. I think we can be one of the best groups on the team. That’s what we strive to be,” Stove said. “Sky’s the limit, really.”
Like Williams said, Auburn has its sights set on becoming “Wide Receiver U,” starting this season.
“We’re going to be the best receiving corps in the nation,” Hill said. “Forget Clemson, forget Alabama. We’re going to make some plays.”