Auburn recently lost a commitment from the top wide receiver in the country according to the 247Sports composite in 5* Tampa, FL WR Nate Craig-Myers. Craig-Myers had been committed to the Tigers for around a year before decommitting last week. This got me wondering about whether Malzahn's run-heavy offense and the fact that Auburn has not had a receiver catch more than 45 passes in a season since Malzahn's return, as Bud Elliot pointed out.
2013 Season / 2014 Recruiting Class
Auburn's 2013 offense was known for running the football. Whether it be Tre Mason, Nick Marshall, Corey Grant, or one of the receivers on a speed sweep, Auburn's identity was in running the football. Outside of Sammie Coates, receivers weren't doing a lot of pass catching. Though Ricardo Louis had a pretty good year, too.
Sammie Coates led the team with 42 receptions and 902 yards in 2013. The next closest receiver was Ricardo Louis with 28 for 325. All told, 15 Tigers caught passes in 2013, and 10 of those Tigers caught at least one touchdown pass. Six of those touchdown passes were of 20+ yards. Auburn didn't throw the ball much, but when it did it tended to get some pretty big plays. They averaged 14 yards/catch on the season.
With that in mind, it's not surprising that Auburn didn't attract many receivers in the 2014 recruiting class. The only wide receiver to sign with Auburn in 2014 was D'haquille Williams. If you're only going to sign one, it helps to sign one of the best. Auburn did just that, selling the program to Duke as being more pass-oriented in 2014. Duke signed with the Tigers and went on to have a pretty good season even with missed time due to injuries and suspension.
Plus, no receivers were lost due to graduation from 2013 to 2014. They added Duke Williams and moved Trovon Reed to CB. That's pretty much it. So with pretty much the exact same number of receivers, the Tigers threw the ball more and increased the numbers of receivers not named Sammie Coates. Coates missed games due to injury as well, so who knows what adjustments would have been made to stats had he and Duke played in the games they missed.
2014 Season / 2015 Recruiting Class
In 2014, Duke Williams led the team in number of catches (45, to Sammie Coates' 34), but Sammie led in total yards (741 to Duke's 730). Quan Bray was Auburn's second leading receiver in number of catches with 39, and third in total yards with 471. The total number of Tigers catching passes was again 15 in 2014, and the average was 14.3 yards per reception.
Auburn threw the ball 562 more yards in 2014 than they did in 2013 (2984 to 2422). So, in spite of the appearances of the offense not changing much, they really did throw the ball more. In terms of statistics, Auburn was fairly balanced in 2014 with 3,321 rushing yards to 2,984 passing yards.
Things were a bit different in recruiting after the 2014 season. Sammie Coates, Quan Bray, and CJ Uzomah all graduated. Uzomah was more of a Tight-End, but he did line up in traditional wide-receiver sets at times. Auburn went after a few big fish (5* Terry Godwin in particular), and ended up with three very good receivers and a tight-end in the 2014 class. Those were 4* Darius Slayton (a last second flip from UGA), 4* Ryan Davis, 4* ATH Jason Smith, and 3* TE Jalen Harris.
Is There Blow Back in Receiver Recruiting?
The reason for the lack of receivers in the 2014 recruiting class can be attributed to the Tigers not really needing to add a large number of receivers due to roster depth and because they wanted to ensure they snagged their main target in the outstanding Duke Williams. So it's hard to judge whether Auburn suffered in recruiting due to the offense or whether the Tigers just weren't going heavily after receivers. The 247Sports database for Auburn "Targets" in 2014 leads me to lean heavily towards the latter.
In terms of roster depth, Auburn performed a one-for-one swap in receivers with the 2015 recruiting class. That's pretty much what you want to see in terms of turnover. The 247Sports 2015 Targets database shows that the Tigers only really missed on Terry Godwin at the wide receiver position. The only other wide receiver high on that list was Preston Williams, and there were indications Auburn asked him to leave on his recruiting visit due to issues that were never completely made clear.
It's hard to draw any real conclusion from this that Auburn's run-heavy offense caused the Tigers to miss on a number of wide receivers. Indeed, they even flipped Slayton from UGA at the last second (although UGA was recruiting Slayton mostly as a DB). Sure, Godwin stuck with his UGA commitment, but there was talk he gave the Tigers plenty of consideration and it's always tough to pull a home-state kid away from the state school. Auburn met their needs at wide receiver. It's not like they completely whiffed on all major prospects.
But What If The Trend Continues?
Skip ahead to the 2016 recruiting cycle. Until last week, Auburn had one of the top WRs in the nation committed in Nate Craig-Myers. With Craig-Myers' decommittment, the Tigers are down to just one pass-catcher in the class so far: much-lauded TE Landon Rice. To be fair, there're only six people currently a part of the 2016 class, so there's still a long way to go. Auburn will add another 16 or more players to the class. You can bet there will be wide receivers. Nate Craig-Myers may still rejoin the fold.
Auburn's biggest competition for Nate Craig-Myers has been Florida State, who have made heavy pushes for the top WR. Florida is also in play after they became the first big school to offer his brother a scholarship. Bud Elliot mused last week that Auburn's "spread" offense and the fact that no receiver has caught more than 45 passes in a season may be a key reason why Craig-Myers decommitted from the Tigers. Could this lack of pass-catching lead to negative recruiting by other coaches against the Tigers? Should we be worried about that?
The short answer, to me at least, is we should not be worried about that at the moment. Gus Malzahn plays to his offensive strengths. Even with a quarterback who wasn't great throwing the football, he still managed to get Duke Williams enough catches that it shocked many that he didn't turn pro after this season. With Jeremy Johnson's arm, I am sure you are going to see Auburn throw the ball a lot more and more receivers will put up big numbers.
Auburn is going after receivers in the 2016 class since Ricardo Louis, Melvin Ray, and Duke Williams will be gone after this season. Losing Craig-Myers hurts, but all is not lost just yet. A big-time performance in 2015 by Auburn's passing game could swing him back to the Tigers, particularly if his brother picks up an Auburn offer. Meanwhile, things are looking very bright for Auburn with consensus 4* Eli Stove.
The possibility is there though that if Auburn's passing numbers are on the low end even with Duke Williams as the obvious feature receiver and Jeremy Johnson's NFL-caliber arm, then we could see a definite negative reaction. You can bet other coaches around the country will be talking about it. I'm sure they're probably already talking it up on the recruiting trail, but if they are there's no clear evidence that it's working right now. One (Craig-Myers) does not a trend make. You can't point to Godwin as proof since UGA hasn't had a receiver with over 45 catches in the past two seasons, either.
What Needs to Happen for Auburn?
While I'm not too concerned about it, I do think Auburn needs a big year out of Duke Williams. Auburn has never had a wide receiver drafted in the 1st round, so assuring Williams of that 1st round spot would go a long way towards convincing recruits that big things are on the way for the wide receivers at Auburn.
How will Auburn go about putting Duke in that position. Well, just read this excellent FanPost on the subject by AU_Jonesy. With Johnson and Williams, Auburn has the tools to put together a really good passing offense in 2015. That's before we even get to Melvin Ray, Ricardo Louis, Marcus Davis, Jason Smith, Stanton Truitt, and others. A big year in the passing game would go a long way towards helping in recruiting. I don't really see 45+ catches as some magic number (it just happens to be the most any Auburn receiver has had in the past two years), but getting Duke into the 1st round and just having folks talking about Auburn's passing game should be enough to assuage any worries on the minds of recruits.