Heading into 2020, Auburn’s wide receivers were thought to be a strength.
Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, Eli Stove. That trio was one of the best groups on paper that we’ve seen in recent years. The fact that they had all spent plenty of time with Bo Nix should’ve paid off and meant that the passing game took a huge step forward in 2020.
That didn’t really happen, and whose fault that is remains a question that probably has multiple answers. Nix’s lack of development. A step backward for the offensive line. Gus Malzahn’s stagnation as an offensive-minded strategist. However it worked out, the wide receivers weren’t the strength that they should have been.
Overall, Auburn loses 145 catches, 1,755 yards, and 10 touchdowns from the trio of last season, and won’t return any receivers that caught double digit passes in 2020. The most prolific pass-catcher is John Samuel Shenker, who snagged 9 passes for 97 yards. It’s going to be a fairly thin receiver group, and one that can’t afford many setbacks. However, they’ll get plenty of time to work in the spring and find cohesion with Nix and the new offense in general.
Projected Starters: Elijah Canion - 3 catches, 80 yards, 1 TD; Ze’Vian Capers - 7 catches, 77 yards, 1 TD; Shedrick Jackson - 6 catches, 84 yards; Kobe Hudson - 7 catches, 70 yards
- Biggest Question: Who’s the breakout star in this offense and how will the distribution stack up?
Man, Auburn returns very few catches and such little production from last year. While the passing offense wasn’t prolific, the Tigers still lose 72% of their receiving yards. That number goes even higher when you consider the percentage of yards lost from wideouts alone. Thankfully, Auburn still has Tank Bigsby, who showed himself as a solid pass catcher, and Shaun Shivers as well, who also added double digit receptions.
That said, this spring ought to be a near free-for-all trying to establish the pecking order on the boundaries. Aside from the four guys listed above, Auburn has some young talent that’s ready to make a name. Malcolm Johnson, Ja’Varrius Johnson, and J.J. Evans are waiting to see the field more extensively, and they’ll likely get plenty of work over the next few weeks. Malcolm Johnson, in particular, might have to take over the Anthony Schwartz role and become the speedy deep threat.
If you’re looking for a breakout star, you’d probably be leaning toward Capers, who played more and more as the season went on, catching his lone touchdown in the blowout win over LSU. He did have to deal with an injury in the bowl game against Northwestern, and it’s unclear when exactly he’ll be fit to play. With his size at 6’4, and the size of Canion alongside (alos 6’4), Auburn could have some tall and physical receivers to match up against smaller defensive backs. Capers’ injury moves him squarely into the unknown category, though, and opens the door for Canion (also a favorite in the Orange and True game — is this an Auburn football player or a Star Wars character?) to become the breakout star and favored target of Bo Nix.
While we mentioned the Johnsons above, Kobe Hudson was another guy who saw the field early and often, even if he didn’t get a bunch of receptions. He showed off blocking skills, and was able to get open even if Nix was fixated on his three other favorite targets. He should be one of the favored receivers this year. Speaking of blocking skills, Auburn’s best returning blocker on the perimeter is Shedrick Jackson, and he’ll almost certainly be able to enhance his 6 catches and turn that into a more prolific season.
There’s another dimension that Auburn fans have been clamoring for over the past few seasons, and that’s extended usage of the tight ends. Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo have no problem using tight ends in their passing concepts, and this could be the year that Auburn finally turns one into a viable weapon in the aerial game. John Samuel Shenker caught an unheard of amount of balls for a Tiger tight end last year (9 catches, YOWZA), and he, along with Luke Deal and Brandon Frazier, could all see double digits in 2021. I would count on one of them becoming the primary target, though, and you might have to peg Shenker as the guy based on usage over the past couple of seasons, although Frazier got open plenty in 2020.
Something that will definitely help the Auburn passing game this year is that Harsin and Bobo (despite the jokes) will bring a more sophisticated passing attack to the Plains than Gus Malzahn had. We heard the jabs about route trees and the high school offense, and while anyone with a brain knows that it’s not as simple as that, the fact remains that Gus did get stagnant in his play-calling. The offense never evolved, and even took a step back from what we saw when Nick Marshall was running the show, and even from the kinds of things we ran with Jarrett Stidham. Again, we won’t really get a good idea of these changes until the spring game, and then into the start of the season this fall, but you can always go watch some old Boise games to get an idea of just how different the offense will look under Harsin. It’ll just take some investment and trust into a few fairly unproven guys to make it work.