Auburn’s passing game was the bigger question on offense going into the 2017 season. Running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway were back, so there were no concerns on the ground. Through the air, the Tigers had a new quarterback, a new offensive coordinator with new passing concepts, and a relatively inexperienced group of wide receivers.
That’s certainly not the case going into the 2018 season. In fact, it might be the complete opposite. Auburn’s running backs unproven. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham more than proved himself as a passer as he became just the second player in program history to throw for 3,000 yards in a single season.
Five wide receivers who caught double-digit passes from Stidham during that campaign are back for another one this year. Still, there are some questions that need to be answered this fall.
Here’s a look at what we know and don’t know about the Tigers’ pass-catching corps:
Ryan Davis (Sr.), Will Hastings (Sr.), Darius Slayton (Jr.), Nate Craig-Myers (Jr.), Eli Stove (Jr.), Marquis McClain (So.), Shedrick Jackson (Fr.), Matthew Hill (Fr.), Seth Williams (Fr.), Anthony Schwartz (Fr.)
WHAT WE KNOW
What we know is that Davis is again going to be the focal point. We didn’t know that last season, when he entered his junior season with just 25 career catches for 194 yards, but we certainly do now.
Auburn’s quarterbacks completed 255 passes last season. Davis caught 84 of those (or 33.3 percent) for 815 yards and five touchdowns. The touchdown total tied for the team lead. The yardage total led the team and ranked seventh in the SEC. The catch total ranked first in the SEC by nine and set a new single-season program record, shattering the previous mark of 60 set by Darvin Adams in 2009.
Davis led all SEC receivers with an 87.3-percent catch rate out of the slot last season, per Pro Football Focus, but Auburn used him all over the field and surely will again this year, especially given the ACL injuries suffered by two of those top five returners, Hastings and Stove.
The senior will be a better-known commodity among opposing defenses this year than he was when he burst onto the scene last season, but the same could have been said during the latter half of the 2017 campaign, and he still averaged more than seven catches and 72 yards per game after the start of November.
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What we don’t know is how exactly Auburn will end up filling in the holes left by Stove and Hastings, who are expected to miss at least a portion of the season with their ACL injuries, if not all of it. Stove caught 29 passes for 265 yards (and rushed 30 times for 315 yards) from the flanker spot last year, and Hastings caught 26 balls for 525 yards and four scores out of the slot.
Auburn returns Slayton (29 catches, 643 yards, five touchdowns) and Craig-Myers (16 catches, 285 yards, three scores), so it’s not as if Davis will be the lone experienced veteran in the passing game without Stove and Hastings. But Auburn will need some other players to step up for as long as Stove and Hastings are sidelined.
The two most interesting options are probably Schwartz and Devan Barrett. The latter is a running back by trade, but the Tigers began trying him in a dual role toward the end of spring practice. He rushed four times for 39 yards and caught four passes for no gain on A-Day, and while the numbers don’t stand out, the usage does — Barrett lined up mostly at wide receiver, but he caught the ball on swing and screen passes and carried it on both jet sweeps and after motioning into the backfield.
“A lot of times in our offense, you can take a running back or a receiver, put him in that slot and he can be your speed sweep guy," running backs coach Tim Horton said in April. "He knew what to do, obviously everything with the running back stuff, but he was a quick learner with the receiver stuff."
Schwartz is a true freshman who hasn’t even officially joined Auburn for workouts just yet, but that’s only because he’s preparing to run in the IAAF U20 World Track and Field Championships in two weeks. The four-star signee is the fastest youth sprinter in the nation — he won the 100-meter dash at the USATF Junior Outdoor Championships last month with a time of 10.23 seconds — and probably has Auburn’s coaching staff salivating over what kind of weapon he could be in the passing game with his speed.
THEY SAID IT
“I feel very confident. I know Ryan Davis, Nate, Darius, obviously the guys that have played a lot, we all have extreme confidence in those young guys. I think that they can definitely step up.” — Jarrett Stidham
Tight ends haven’t played a huge role for Auburn in the passing game of late. Will that change 2018? A look at what we know and don’t know about those players as the season approaches.