Monday, February 2, 2015

Auburn's Understated Needs of 2015 Signing Day: Wide Receiver

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National Signing Day is only 48 short hours from now. After's a long way until Spring Practice. 

Social media is currently  inundated with National Signing Day articles. It is a flood of flips and flops, hopes and dreams of a mythical NSD championship. And, for the 5th year in a row, the rest of College Football is scrambling for the Tide's scraps. Yes, it's true (and hard to admit). Alabama will sign the most ESPN 300 players in history on their way to perhaps the greatest recruiting class in modern recruiting history. 

Theoretically...of course.  Talent sure helps, but it doesn't win trophies. Alas, we must press on. 

But, no, I don't want to talk about THEM. I want to talk about the Tigers. And, I don't want to talk about the same things all the beat reporters have already told you. 

In case you missed it, I blogged late last week about the #1 priority that I think Auburn has....and it is has been completely understated. That being the need for a smart and dominate SEC-type center. You can read that article here: 

Auburn's Understated Needs of 2015 Signing Day: Center

But, this isn't the only position that I think Auburn has an understated need. Perhaps even MORE understated is the need for game-breaking Wide Receivers. Now, most of you are rolling your collective eyes. You are thinking, Auburn has potentially the best returning wide receiver in college football and an almost guaranteed first round lock in Duke Williams. 

No, I am not diminishing Duke Williams. After all, I thought it was IMPERATIVE that he and Sammie Coates return for their senior season, which I wrote about and you can read here:

Of course, I was referring to developing their game and not how they would produce in the 2015 offensive unit. And, Coates didn't listen to me and he finds himself a borderline 1st round pick to POTENTIALLY the World Champion Patriots, who DESPERATELY need someone aside from Lafell as a deep threat. So, I can accept being wrong on that account. 

Now that we know that Duke is returning, what do we expect from him? Well, he is a terrific big-body target who dominates across the middle and provides a massive vertical target inside the red zone, a la Calvin Johnson. But, Auburn's offense under Guz Malzahn has never been predicated with having this type of receiver. We kind of addressed this in an earlier post. 

Looking back at Auburn's offenses under Malzahn, if you look at the breakdown between the more explosive units (2009, 2010, 2013) versus those that weren't (2011, 2014), you will find that the X-factor is always a vertical threat. Under Malzahn, Auburn has featured 2 such receivers in Darvin Adams and Sammie Coates. Though Adams never turned into an NFL talent, he was as good a deep threat as there was in college football. In 2013, Coates was arguably the best. He was extremely limited in 2014 because of injuries and the Auburn offense struggled, despite having capable possession receivers in Williams and Bray. Looking back at 2011, you see the same. Despite having an NFL tight end AND receiver in Lutz and Emory Blake, Auburn had no legitimate deep threat. Defenses were able to limit Auburn's offense by stopping Dyer early in the down and forcing Auburn into 3rd and long situations where they struggled mightily when defenses walked 9 men into the box and into press coverage. 

Interestingly enough, despite what the recruiting sites tell us about Auburn's recent recruiting prowess, the ability to lure in top-tier wide receivers WHO PAY OFF has eluded Auburn. Though Adams was one of the best receivers in recent memory, he wasn't a Malzhan era recruit. Only Emory Blake has managed to put together an NFL-type career. Along the way, Auburn has signed some huge busts. Now, in the years below, I do recognize that Malzahn wasn't the coordinator in 2012. However, he had a hand in recruiting all of these guys. Let's take a look.

In 2009, Auburn signed DeAngelo Benton, a 4-Star who was supposed to be the bookend for fellow new comer Emory Blake, but he turned in a near zero stat line in his time at Auburn. 

In 2010, Auburn signed 3 4-Star or greater WRs.  5-Star Trovon Reed, who never turned into any resemblance of a star and remains one of the biggest recruiting whiffs in the modern recruiting era. Neither did his fellow 4-Star receivers, Antonio Goodwin and Jeremy Richardson, neither of which contributed. 

In 2011, Auburn signed 3-Star Sammie Coates, who has worked out marvelously. The same can't be said for 4-Star Jaylon Denson, who has been hampered by injury as he enters his last year. These were the only 2 WRs signed that year.  

In 2012, Auburn signed 4-Star Ricardo Louis, who despite being a legendary figure for the Prayer in Jordan-Hare, has struggled with the ability to catch the ball. He has turned into a decent running threat and looks to have a breakout year in 2015. His only other WR counterpart, Jaquay Williams, failed to qualify academically. 

In 2013, Auburn signed the most WRs in recent memory. 4-Star Earnest Robinson and Jason Smith failed to qualify, though 4-Star Tony Stevens has been produced when thrown to. Of the  3-Stars, Dominic Walker and Marcus Davis, only Davis has been his limited play.  

In 2014, only Duke Williams provided any stats from the signing WRs, though he was a JUCO guy. Stanton Truitt, a 4-Star guy, hasn't made it on the field though the coaching staff has been impressed.

It's obvious that Auburn hasn't had trouble recruiting for stars. The problem is, there hasn't a relationship with expected talent level and production. The two game-breaking receivers who make the Gus Malzahn offense work were both 3-star receivers in Adams and Coates. Of the 14 4-Star and 5-Star receivers that Auburn has signed since 2008, only Emory Blake has gone on to the NFL, though Duke Williams seems to be a future NFL lock. And, only Duke has turned in any sort of expected production. I do admit that I believe, in some cases such as Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens, it has been the play calling and not the performance. After all, both of these guys have caught every pass thrown their way. 

Fast forward to NSD. Auburn currently has only 3 guys committed who are most likely to play receiver. Both McGriff and Smith (who signed back in 2013 and is supposedly going out for QB)  are listed as 4-Star Athletes. Though Smith has stated that he wants to play QB, and the coaching staff has promised him the chance, it would take a most impressive push for him to bump Johnson and White from starters. Kerryon Johnson comes to Auburn listed as a RB and has made it clear he wants to play RB. However, KJ was the centerpiece (thus far) of the 2015 class and, as I stated months ago, keeping him...even by promising a shot at RB....was imperative. 

With Roc Thomas poised to take over the position vacated by Corey Grant and with Jovon Robinson ready to be the bruiser, I see Kerryon as a Reggie Bush type player. He reminds me of Bush with his hybrid abilities. I firmly believe that without a lot of coaching, he will never be a 1st and 2nd down back with his pad level and footwork. However, he could fit the void left by Bray as a tunnel/slip screen and sweep running option. 

Auburn looses Bray and Coates and seems to have fill ins with Davis, Truitt, and Stevens. Though Davis and Stevens have been effective, neither are vertical speedsters to "take the top off the defense." Word is that Truitt has that ability, but he hasn't seen the field yet, so I reserve judgement. The closest player Auburn has that can match the need would be Louis, who has the speed. Clocked at under 4.3 last year, many thought Louis would enter 2014 with improved hands and route running. He never turned into that consistent threat, and despite the long TD catch in the Outback Bowl, it remains to be seen if he can get open AND catch the ball when contested. My feeling is that he won't turn the corner in 2015. 

It's interesting how Auburn continues to load in specific positions when only 1 guy can play that position each year, I.E. QB. However, receiver has been the one position Auburn continues to struggle with, and that positions commands the most players on the offensive side of the ball. Auburn must have 5 receivers, minimum, who can play. At least 1 of those guys must be a legitimate vertical threat for the HUNH offense to work, yet there doesn't seem to be a player on the roster or committed to Auburn heading into NSD. Yet, this position hasn't been one that seems to be a battle ground, if you are reading up on the late push for signees. Instead, Auburn seems more interested in defensive play makers. The last week's media has been littered with articles following the recruitment of the 3-package deal that includes the consensus "best player in high school" DE Cowart. Additionally, Auburn is in a fight for the best offensive lineman available, Ivey. Yet, Auburn has significant depth in both of these positions (though the DL didn't live up to expectations in 2014). Instead, the top 2 high school receivers in the nation head to Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge...both schools with extensive questions at QB and renown for having incredible and underutilized talent at receiver. 

There are several targets left on the board and you should never rule out 11th hour flips. 4-Star Ryan Davis looks to be the closest WR that Auburn has to a legitimate chance to land. However, he doesn't have the range or height Auburn needs in a deep threat. Surprisingly, of the uncommitted WRs, Davis is the only target that actually had an Auburn visit.  

Obviously, I have faith in the coaching staff to assess their needs and go after the guys they want. However, there have been glaring needs at WR, as the passing game under Malzahn has often looked like a 1-trick-pony. Furthermore, Auburn hasn't been able to be consistent on offense from year to year, mostly because receivers like Coates and Adams have massive years and leave while the understudies lack development. Auburn must have that deep threat to make the HUNH offense work, as we talked about in the beginning of this post. Yet they have been unable to recruit and develop the type talent Auburn needs to make a playoff push and be a consistently good team. This year looks to be more of the same. Though Auburn has some great talent coming in on the offensive side of the ball, it doesn't have a premier pass catcher among it. Furthermore, Auburn doesn't seem like it will be the landing ground for any of the remaining targets. 

In closing, Auburn will end the year with STATISTICALLY one of the best recruiting classes in the nation. This is a reoccurring theme for most every team in the SEC. However, if you read any of my blogs, you know I have a major gripe with the inability to turn these consistently good recruiting classes into consistently good teams. Auburn hasn't had consecutive 10 win seasons. Ever. Despite having Top 10 classes each of the last few years. On the flip side, THAT team across the state considers it a failure to only have 10 wins a season. Why? I think it is because they don't just recruit for stars, but they recruit with detail. Not only do they recruit for their glaring needs, but for their understated needs. 

Auburn has at least 2 of those. Will the coaches address them?