AUBURN — Seth Williams was as curious as any reporter or fan to find out who Auburn’s starting quarterback would be Aug. 31 in Arlington, Texas.
Now that the sophomore wide receiver knows — head coach Gus Malzahn formally announced before Tuesday’s practice that it would be true freshman Bo Nix — the real work begins.
“Definitely got to get a good little bond in before we get up there against Oregon,” Williams said. “So he’ll know what I’m fixing to do before I actually do it so he’ll know where to put the ball.”
No. 16-ranked Auburn will open the 2019 season against No. 11 Oregon in Arlington, Texas, on Aug. 31 without its top two wide receivers from last season — Darius Slayton, who caught 35 passes for a team-high 670 yards and five touchdowns; and Ryan Davis, who caught a team-high 69 passes for 546 yards and a score.
Williams, who finished third behind both of them with 26 catches for 534 yards and five scores as a true freshman, has his sights set on becoming the Tigers’ top target in the passing game now that Slayton (New York Giants) and Davis (New England Patriots) have moved on to the NFL.
The 6-foot-3, former four-star recruit Auburn plucked from the Tuscaloosa area in the Class of 2018 showed flashes of that potential last season. His first career score came on a 46-yard reception against Southern Miss. He hauled in two key touchdowns in the final minutes of the Tigers’ come-from-behind win over Texas A&M two games later. He went over 100 yards for the first time in his career against Liberty two weeks after that.
Williams was able to have that success using solely his raw athletic ability. He has the size and leaping ability to go up and make almost any catch, but position coach Kodi Burns said he “wasn’t really coached up as far as receiver” at Paul W. Bryant High. He was a three-sport athlete who also starred in basketball and track, so he never had the time to focus on football year-round.
“When I recruited Seth, I knew he was a heck of an athlete. I watched him on the basketball court, and he could dunk a basketball every which way, but he was really raw,” Burns said. “So it’s been awesome to watch his development over the last year. Because to be honest, when he got here as a freshman, we had to develop him as far as teaching him the offense and the plays to go out there and make plays.”
The start of his sophomore year should feel much different for Williams. Rather than going from football to basketball to track, he has instead spent the nearly nine months since the Dec. 28 Music City Bowl focusing only on the gridiron, which has allowed him to put in work he might not have had time for in the past.
Williams entered preseason camp listed at 224 pounds, which is seven pounds more than he weighed at the start of spring practice, but “the roster lied,” he said — the Cottondale native actually lost about 10 pounds since the end of last season, so he’s really in the 212- to 215-pound range.
“He changed his body comp,” strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell said. “He lost a lot of body fat. So I think he’s looking really good, looking really good, doing really well at practice right now, route-running. He’s putting in more yardage than he did last year. He had a good offseason.”
The idea was to get the sophomore to a point where he could get down the field quicker and play more snaps — maybe even the whole game — without getting tired. Williams also worked extensively on his route-running and improving his releases off the line of scrimmage, as well as his understanding of the position.
“We’re looking forward to where he can run every single route in the route tree, which I think is where he’s at in this point of his career,” Burns said. “He can really become a guy for us. I think he’s at that point.”
That will allow Auburn to move Williams around the formation even more than it did last season — he’ll still play inside and over the middle, but having that extra speed, conditioning and route-running ability also makes him an option to move outside and play the split end, deep threat role Slayton shined in over the past two seasons. Maybe even the top one given his experience compared to Matthew Hill, Marquis McClain and graduate transfer Zach Farrar.
“I feel way lighter than last year,” Williams said. “Last year, I had a bigger body presence, and I feel like that helped more for blocking and for the position I was playing. Now that I have lost some weight I can run more and I have a feel for things and making moves. I feel way better.”
There was some concern about Auburn’s wide receiving corps just one week ago, when every member of it was held back after a scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium to run sprints to atone for a series of drops. Williams didn’t participate during that scrimmage due to an ailing back that had limited him during preseason camp, and neither did Eli Stove, Will Hastings (load management as they come back from knee injuries) and Anthony Schwartz (hand surgery).
But Williams returned to full-speed this past Friday and has shined at practice since. He’s not quite 100 percent (no one is during football season, he said), but does feel like he’s “about 98 percent.” Stove and Hastings were also back to full-go on Tuesday and are “starting to get in rhythm with Bo,” Malzahn said.
Schwartz is still questionable to play against Oregon — Malzahn said he won’t be able to provide an additional update on his status until next week — but even if the sophomore speedster can’t go, Nix should still have three of Auburn’s top four wide receivers at his disposal on Aug. 31.
“It’s awesome. As a quarterback, that’s — you have to use those guys as your best friends, and use their skill set to your advantage, and if you can’t make a perfect throw, then you know and understand that they can make a play,” Nix said after being named the starter Tuesday. “If you have those kind of players around you, it makes your job a whole lot easier.”
That was Williams’ goal.
“Knowing I can actually take the next step up and be up there in the top receivers in the nation and have the possibility to be in that group, it makes me even hungrier to go out there and play hard every day,” Williams said. “My goal is to ball out and do what I do.”