A lot of people back home in Arkansas used to tell Will Hastings that his decision to walk on at Auburn was “really dumb.”
He set records as a wide receiver at Pulaski Academy, catching 113 balls for 2,040 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior. The gaudy statistics in an up-tempo offense weren’t enough for the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Hastings to garner any Division I interest, but he had chances to play for a number of Division II schools closer to home.
Hastings, though, always wanted to play at a big Division I school. So when Auburn offered him a chance to walk-on as an onside kick specialist, he jumped at the chance.
His career as a kicker never really panned out — both his onside kick attempts in 2015 failed — but his decision to attend Auburn has still proven to be the right one: Last year, Hastings moved from kicker to wide receiver. On Thursday, the junior was one of six walk-ons to be awarded a scholarship by head coach Gus Malzahn.
“I’m really thankful for him for giving me the opportunity,” Hastings said. “Being able to get a scholarship shows hard work, determination and just a lot of time put in to get that. So it means a lot to me.”
The journey to get to this point has been an interesting one for Hastings. At this time last year, he was merely a fun story; a wide receiver turned kicker turned wide receiver making plays during fall camp.
But early on during Auburn’s 2016 campaign, Hastings’ speed and quickness out of the slot made him something of a weapon. He caught three passes for 29 yards against Clemson and two more for 34 yards and his first career touchdown against Arkansas State the next week.
"That's when he's really blossomed," Malzahn said. "He's super quick, he can come in and out of cuts as good as anybody I've seen and he's showed some toughness. He's earned the right to be on scholarship and to have a chance to help us."
Hastings fell quiet after those first two games last season, though. After catching just three passes for 9 yards Week 3 against Texas A&M, the then-sophomore went on to catch just one pass over the Tigers’ next seven games.
“Obviously I didn’t play like I wanted to the rest of that season,” said Hastings, who finished with 11 catches for 98 yards. “Just kind of after the season I talked to my family and I was like, ‘Look, I’m never letting that happen again.’ I got it out of my system quick and I’m never letting it come back in.”
So far, he hasn’t. Hastings built a quick rapport with starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham in the spring, catching a team-high seven passes for 77 yards on A-Day. He carried that over into the fall, where he’s locked into a battle with junior Ryan Davis for the top spot at one of Auburn’s slot positions.
“He’s a guy that goes full-speed every day,” wide receivers coach Kodi Burns said. “Sometimes, I have to say, ‘Whoa man, slow down a little bit.’ But he makes plays. So as long as he continues to do what he’s been doing, I think he’ll be fine.”
That decision to go to Auburn doesn’t look so dumb now.
“Nobody gave me a chance. Then coach Burns came in and he gave me a chance,” Hastings said. “He really believed in me more than I believed in myself. He really helped me out and got me to where I am. It’s been definitely a crazy ride.”