Marcus Davis (above) is Auburn's top returning receiver for the 2016 season.
Auburn's struggling offense during 2015 garnered plenty of attention, especially at the quarterback position. Any time the passing game falls on difficult times the quarterback becomes the most scrutinized player on any football team. This was indeed the case for Jeremy Johnson and Sean White, which carries over to a full-blown quarterback competition in 2016.
Most fans will focus on the performance of the quarterback, but coaches cannot afford to overlook the remaining 10 positions on offense. Auburn finished the 2015 season with the nation’s No. 79 rated pass offense, a colossal drop from being ranked No. 8 during 2014. Though the quarterbacks had their issues last season, they weren’t the only issue with the passing attack. The wide receivers were inconsistent and remain a question as the Tigers prepare for the 2016 season.
Auburn will lack experience at the wide receiver spots, but new position coach Kodi Burns says he excited about the challenge and notes the opportunity awaits for his guys to prove they deserve major playing time. “I hope it is not just one person who steps up,” he says. “I hope it is multiple guys. I think it’s a collective group, we are a young group, we are unproven. I think that is a good thing because I think guys will be hungry to want to be that guy.”
Kodi Burns is shown at an Auburn practice.
The 2015 wideouts were one of the least productive units compared to recent Auburn receiving corps. Based on yards per game, yards per reception, touchdown ratio and impact plays, the 2015 receiving corps ranked No. 19 among the last 24 Auburn receiving corps dating back to 1992. Last season the receivers finished No. 20 in yards per reception, No. 14 in touchdown ratio and No. 23 in impact-play ratio among the past two dozen Auburn teams.
As a unit the wide receivers produced only 34 plays of 15 yards or longer in the passing game last season and 76.5 percent of that production is no longer on the roster. This lack of productivity is the very reason why Kodi Burns is counting on multiple players stepping up in 2016 and why Auburn signed four wide receivers for this year’s freshman class.
Overall, the 2015 Auburn pass offense suffered a 35 percent dropoff from 2014 in producing pass plays of 15 yards or more. The Tigers’ inability to consistently vertically stretch opposing defenses made it difficult to sustain drives last year. Auburn returns only four scholarships receivers who caught a pass in 2015, and they combined for 9.9 yards per reception and a touchdown every 15 receptions.
Marcus Davis, Tony Stevens, Jason Smith, and Stanton Truitt are the only returning wide receivers who caught a pass last season. Auburn’s 2015 receiver corps had an efficiency rating of 110.9, which was No. 19 among Auburn’s last 24 receiving corps. The returning quartet of Davis, Stevens, Smith and Truitt had a combined rating of 74.8, which means the incoming youth will have an opportunity to compete for playing time right away.
Moving Roc Thomas to a slot receiver role this spring could pay off because of his ability to make plays in space. He has only 103 career touches on offense, but he produced 12 plays of 15 yards or more from those limited opportunities. Of his 17 career receptions six were an impact play. He will not be a full-time receiver, but his presence on the field will create mismatches against opposing defenses.
Auburn is in dire need of producing impact plays in its passing game after dropping from No. 5 nationally in 2014 to No. 72 in 2015. The top four returning receivers have a combined 102 career receptions, but only 16 impact plays. This is a ratio of one every 6.4 receptions compared to the 2.8 ratio from 1992-2015.
AU’s top three receiving groups from 1992-2015 were 1997, 2004 and 2010. Those teams produced a combined record of 37-3-0 along with three trips to the SEC Championship game. The 2014 unit finished No. 4 on the efficiency list, giving Malzahn two of the top four wide receivers corps.
Looking at yards per reception, Auburn’s top five groups from 1992-2015 combined for a record of 56-8-0. Marcus Davis is this season’s most experienced receiver, appearing in 40 games with 66 career receptions. Up to this point he has been primarily a short-yardage target, averaging only 7.4 yards per reception. The Tigers need for Stevens and Smith to step up in the intermediate range as well as the incoming freshman class.
During the past 24 seasons Auburn has produced seven teams in which the wide receivers averaged at least four impact plays per game. Those teams combined for a record of 70-19, an indicator of what great wide receiver play can mean for an offense.
Under Malzahn’s guidance Auburn is 29-7 in games the wide receivers produce at least four impact plays in the passing game. Identifying playmakers at those spots will be a top priority for Burns and Tigers as they take on their 2016 schedule.