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Season of Murphy: The Receivers Dropped the Ball Literally and Figuratively

Sure, the pass catchers didn't catch as many passes as we wanted, but they also failed to step up as a whole in the mold of past Malzahn receivers.

Garrett Reid-USA TODAY Sports

A lot is made of Auburn's streak of 1000 yard rushers and deservedly so. It's never been done seven straight years in the SEC before. And it turns out Gus Malzahn has had a hand in most of that success. He's been on the sideline each of the last seven years except for 2012, the year Tre Mason eked out 1002 yards.

But there's another mark Malzahn is pretty good at reaching. It's not as impressive because the mark isn't as nice a number as 1000 and well, the streak isn't actually a solid, unbroken streak. On the other hand, only 5 or so SEC teams reach this mark each year on average (over the last seven years at least).

Gus Malzahn teams have had at least one 900 yard receiver seven out of ten years since he became the offensive coordinator at Arkansas in 2006.

Year Team Player Yards Yards/Catch
2006 Arkansas Marcus Monk 962 19.2
2007 Tulsa Brennan Marion 1244 31.9
2007 Tulsa Trae Johnson 1088 15.5
2007 Tulsa Charles Clay 1024 14.8
2008 Tulsa Brennan Marion 1112 25.9
2009 Auburn Darvin Adams 997 16.6
2010 Auburn Darvin Adams 963 18.5
2012 Arkansas State J.D. McKissic 1022 9.9
2013 Auburn Sammie Coates 902 21.5

The years they fell short? 2011, 2014, and 2015. The table below shows the top two receivers in each of those years.

Year Team Player Yards Yards/Catch
2011 Auburn Emory Blake 613 17.0
2011 Auburn Onterio McCalebb 344 10.8
2014 Auburn Sammie Coates 741 21.8
2014 Auburn D'haquille Williams 730 16.2
2015 Auburn Ricardo Louis 716 15.6
2015 Auburn Melvin Ray 279 14.0

First, a few excuses. In 2011, Emory Blake was injured, missed two games completely and didn't record a stat in some others. If he had stayed healthy and productive the whole season, he could have easily gained the 287 yards needed to reach 900 over the course of a few extra games. The offense as a whole might have benefited too. The second half of the 2011 season was not a fun one.

In 2014, Auburn had two talented receivers but didn't have the quarterback or offensive setup to get them both the ball a ton. Still, two receivers with over 700 yards receiving is pretty good in and of itself. Plus, Duke Williams missed most of three games with injury and was suspended for the bowl game. Surely he could have gained 170 yards in three or four games.

In 2015, Auburn was... Ummm. In 2015... Well. The quarterbacks were... If Duke had just stayed out of... Why's our WR coach a...

Until this year, Malzahn was consistently regarded as one of college football's top offensive minds. What wasn't consistent was the type of offense he was supposedly a genius of. He's been an air-it-out spread guru, a power run maestro and a, most recently, a POP pass cheater innovator . If you ask him though, he'll just tell you he has a run, play-action team.

Coulda used more of this

And that means a lot of throws downfield. The playbook at Tulsa had as many play action pass concepts as it did pure drop back plays. Darvin Adams was Cam's downfield threat just as Sammie Coates was Nick's.

And it always helped to have another threat somewhere else on the field to keep the defense from taking away the deep threat every time. In 2010, Terrell Zachary was that second receiver, with some help from Emory Blake, while Ricardo Louis handled that role in 2013, though the unstoppable run game did nearly as much.

The deep receiver role was handed over to Ricardo this year, and he did fine, but after the dismissal of Duke, he was also asked to be the possession receiver. And one of the sweep backs. Understandably, he couldn't do all three at once and the offense suffered.

What Auburn needed was a new threat to emerge. Adams had only three catches as a freshman and it wasn't because there was a lot of production ahead of him. Then his stats exploded over the next two years. Freshman Sammie Coates showed flashes with two touchdowns with just  six catches in 2012, but he became Nick Marshall's home run threat.

With Coates' early departure for the NFL, I wondered who could take his place. Who had the size and speed to take over the home run role? Who had the hands and bravery to run those dig routes 15-20 yards downfield right in front of ball-hawking safeties? Who had the agility to take a tunnel screen to the house?

No one.

It wasn't going to be Duke. His style was to get open with clean route running and then make tough catches in traffic. It wasn't going to be Melvin Ray. A solid blocker with reliable hands, most of the time, but he was not a guy who could take the top off of a defense.

I thought it would be Melvin Ray. He'd made impressive touchdown catches in 2013 and 2014. He was even lining up at that spot during fall practice. He did end up the with the second-most receptions in 2015, but only gained a paltry 6.1 yards per catch. He became a bubble screen guy.

Tony Stevens has his moments, but nothing consistent. Newcomer Jason Smith has it in him, but he's still new to the position. Maybe 2016? And Ricardo Louis couldn't do it because no one else could take over the other roles he was in.

Ultimately, when it came to replacing Sammie Coates, Auburn's wide receivers dropped the ball. I believe he was as big a loss as Nick Marshall and Auburn's depth at the position just wasn't able to replace him.

Now, I know better than to think simply getting one guy 900 yards results in wins. "Team A is 8-0 when player B rushes 20 times" is exactly the kind of stat I hate. Just hand the ball off 20 times and call it a day? That's not how it works.

But when it comes to Malzahn's offense, someone has to consistently threaten the defense deep. Someone has to be able to convert those third and longs over the middle. Someone has to bring some physicality to the position.

Gus. Receiving corps. Please don't drop the ball in 2016.