D'haquille Williams arrived on the campus of Auburn University in January of 2014. Fans marveled at the footage of his highlights that leaked out as he made amazing catches. Everyone acknowledged he was going to be one-and-done, but so what?!? Auburn was going to throw the football more. Duke is a possession receiver you can count on to make everyone better!
To an extent, that's absolutely correct. When Duke Williams saw the field in 2014, he was a fantastic receiver. His game against Arkansas was phenomenal and part of the reason why there was so much hype for the Jeremy Johnson to Duke Williams combination in 2015. He made clutch catches against Kansas State, Ole Miss, and others that seemed to confirm there was no way he'd stick around for his senior season.
When he was injured early in the Texas A&M game, I thought that was it. Sure, he could come back and play more in 2014, but there was no way he'd risk further injury by sticking around in 2015, right?
Shortly after the semester ended and Auburn was getting ready for bowl prep, there were stories and rumors that he was involved in an off-field incident at or near a local bar. He was suspended for the bowl game. That was the last straw, no way he comes back in 2015.
Yet, he did.
He announced his planned return. He went through Spring Practice. There were social media postings that had Auburn fans worrying, but Dameyune Craig assured us it was "all Gucci."
Then he was suspended from fall practice and the waiting game began. No one has ever publicly stated what led to that suspension, but he spent a few weeks away from the team. He was allowed to come back and "start from the bottom of the depth chart," but we all knew he'd be back on the field and see serious action in the opening game against Louisville.
I wanted to believe that Duke had learned his lesson and would walk the straight-and-narrow for the rest of the season. I know plenty - including commenters here on the site - were just wondering when it would all end, not if it would.
Turns out the answer was October 5th. Two days after Auburn played San Jose State in Jordan-Hare Stadium, Gus Malzahn announced Duke's dismissal.
We expected Duke to be the man down below with Ricardo Louis or Tony Stevens as the deep threat, and maybe Jason Smith on the sweep. Duke ended his 2015 campaign after five games with 12 catches, 147 yards, and 1 touchdown. That's hardly lighting the world on fire.
The questions abounded early on about why Auburn wasn't throwing the ball more to Duke. 3 catches against Louisville. Just two against Jacksonville State. 2 against LSU. Where was Duke?
Part of the struggles coincide with Auburn's struggles at the QB position. Others I don't really understand. I saw some complaints that he was running lazy routes or just didn't seem engaged. I don't know enough Xs and Os to comment for certain, but that's stuff that came from people I trust to know what they're talking about.
It's hard to think that if the QB position didn't struggle, then Duke would have been targeted much more. What we can see, though, is that in 5 games, Duke definitely wasn't on track to be the receiver that Auburn needed him to be.
The Effect on the Wide Receiver Corps
Duke catches most everything thrown his way. Sure, he dropped a few head scratchers, too, but for the most part he has fantastic hands. That wasn't the case with the rest of Auburn's receiving corps.
Ricardo Louis and Duke were Auburn's two primary returning wide-receivers. As WarRoom Eagle notes in that link, Louis was largely forced to wear the hats of every WR position by mid-way through the season. We needed Louis to be the deep threat. When downfield passes struggled, though, he had to stay close as the screen/sweep player.
If Duke keeps out of trouble and stays with the team for the whole season, then that changes the dynamic of the receiving corps. It also could have helped in some games (ahem, Arkansas) where no one was catching what Sean White was putting out there.
Sammie Coates and Quan Bray departed after 2014, but we thought we'd be fine with Ricardo, Duke, Melvin, and adding Jason Smith and others. That plan went out the window with Duke's dismissal.
Second and Third Order Effects
I'm going to engage in some idle speculation and wonder what might have been. If the QB play doesn't struggle and Duke is thrown to a lot more, does that help his overall disposition and keep him out of that October bar fight? Maybe, maybe not. I really wish I could tell you where everything went wrong when it comes to Duke Williams' time with Auburn in 2015. I don't have the first clue, though.
This is just one of those things where so much could have spiraled from one or two issues. Bad QB play leads to unhappy receiver, which leads to dismissal of receiver, which leads to the rest of the receivers struggling to fill roles, which leads to more struggles with the passing game with the quarterbacks.
It just takes one issue to cause the snowball rolling downhill to get bigger and bigger. This is another one of those things that can't be excused, though. Why did Auburn not have more wide receivers ready to step up? Why are they struggling to catch the football? These are questions that make you start looking at who is coaching them and remember that we have a quarterback coach who is coaching wide receivers because we want him for recruiting. I love Dameyune Craig and want to keep him here as long as possible, but I really wish we had someone else coaching wide receivers. That's just this fan's opinion, though.
If there's one thing we knew could go wrong in 2015 - especially after his bowl game suspension and social media postings - it was the Duke Williams Saga. Sure enough, it did. We still wish Duke all the best. I really hope he catches on in the NFL and does great things in his life. We'll always welcome him back in Auburn and consider him part of the Family.