All you have to do is look at the numbers of Rice in the NFL to see the impact of having another target not only on the offense as a whole, but to the game's greatest pass-catcher. In his career Rice caught 1,549 passes for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns. Before Taylor became the Robin to his Batman on the outside, Rice had four very good years for the 49'ers with two of them resulting in double-figure touchdown receptions.
In 1989 Taylor became a full-time starter for San Francisco and would hold that role for nine seasons until his retirement. During that stretch Rice had double figures in touchdowns and caught at least 80 passes each season. Following Taylor's departure Rice played 10 more seasons with four resulting in better than 1,000 yards receiving, but he never again caught 10 touchdowns in a single year.
While age undoubtedly played a factor in his declining productivity, it also shows the importance of finding someone to help take the focus of the defense away. In the case of Auburn's 2011 season, the same thing came into focus with Emory Blake.
As a junior Blake caught 36 passes for 617 yards and five touchdowns and was a major weapon on the outside in the passing game. The problems arose when Blake became banged up in the South Carolina game. While Trovon Reed and Quan Bray combined for 38 catches from the slot, the other outside receivers caught just 29 passes for 551 yards all season. With Blake not full speed they had just 15 receptions the last eight games.
Sammie Coates is one of the players with a chance to make some noise this spring
Auburn wide receiver Coach Trooper Taylor is hoping one of his guys steps up to be that consistent threat opposite Blake on the outside. So far this spring he hasn't seen what he's looking for.
"No, I mean we had a couple of guys, but nothing consistent across the board, where I'd say we were great," Taylor said. "We got to keep getting better, we really do, we just have to, it's alignment and assignment football. One six-inch split could be the difference in the play, and it's glaring out on the perimeter, because then it usually turns into an interception for the defense or a dropped ball or a ball that short-hops because we're not where we're supposed to be. And I get that. But we can't keep saying this is new. This is old. That's over with.
"We're at a deal where we've really got to get in our playbooks, come out and execute. That's the difference. Obviously, understanding where I fit into a formation, understanding spacing, understanding alignment and assignment, now that allows you to play fast. When you're thinking and you're not playing fast because you're worried about where I'm supposed to be lined up, that's not a good thing. And it's everything, it's across the board."
One of the biggest challenges for the wide receivers this spring has been the change in the way they play the game. Under Gus Malzahn they ran what was called no matter the coverage or situation, but that's not the case any longer said Taylor.
"It's huge, because now you adjust on every route," Taylor said. "There's not a single route that's locked, that you don't have to adjust to. It's based on what the defense gives you. They're learning about free access, bump-and-run, and cloud. Now, it's kind of like backyard football. If you're standing over there, I'm not going to run to you, I'm going to run between you and that chair over there to get open.
"It seems like common-sense football, but these guys have been in a system for three years, most of them, and now you're retraining them. But again, you can't have the crutch of this is new. No. It's not new anymore. It was new the first day. It's not new anymore, it's time to learn it and do it, so spending time outside of football. Football's got to be important to them. If they're not doing homework, instead of playing Playstation or X-box, they're doing what we do, which is get in that film room. And they will."
Auburn will have its annual A-Day game on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.