Auburn, Ala.--Preparing for their first Iron Bowl, Auburn freshmen wide receivers Kyle Davis, Nate Craig and Elijah Stove as well as redshirt freshman Darius Slayton are all in line to receive playing time against top-ranked Alabama on Saturday.
That could be a scary proposition to throw three true freshmen into the mix in the biggest game of the season for the Tigers, but Coach Rhett Lashlee said it is not a major concern going into game 12 of the football season.
“I feel pretty good about it, I think for a couple of reasons,” the offensive coordinator said. “One, they’ve played a whole season at this point so they’re not really freshmen and they’ve been in some good environments. Obviously, it’s the Iron Bowl and everybody knows that and until you’ve been to one of those you don’t really get it, but they’re kids, they are 18-22 year-old kids.
“Sometimes what you don’t know is sometimes better than what you do," Lashlee said. "They’re going to go out there...I know those guys and they’re mentality, they’re confident in themselves and they believe in what their coaches are coaching them to do. They’re going to go out and play as hard as they can. Are they going to be perfect? I don’t know, probably not, but we’re going to get their best.
“I don’t think the moment will be too big for anybody. I think our confidence was probably shown (Saturday) night when you start Eli Stove, Kyle Davis and Darius Slayton, who I know is a redshirt freshman, all freshmen to start the game. We’re going to be confident in the guys we have to put out there and the biggest thing we have to do is give them an opportunity to go win the game.”
One of the keys for Auburn’s offense down the stretch, Stove has become a factor for the Tigers. Catching 15 passes for 98 yards, he has become a reliable target for Auburn’s quarterbacks, but it has been in the run game where he’s done more damage with nine carries for 123 yards and a touchdown.
A redshirt freshman, Slayton has 14 catches for 236 yards and a touchdown while Craig has added three grabs for 58 yards and a score.
Darius Slayton gets mobbed following first career TD catch
Perhaps the guy who has the opportunity to make the most impact is Davis.
Despite only having 11 receptions this year, Davis has 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns on the season. The second came last week after getting the start against Alabama A&M.
“It was real satisfying,” he said of the start and the touchdown. “Not many freshmen get to start, let alone get reps. It’s huge for me whether it’s against Alabama A&M or anybody. It’s real huge.”
An early graduate who was on campus for spring practice, Davis was forced to sit out of contact because of shoulder surgery. Then early in fall camp he was hurt again, this time with a foot issue. That slowed his development, but Lashlee said since then he’s come on strong.
“The preseason injury set him back a little bit on being ready to go on the front end a little bit from the rep standpoint on the front end,” Lashlee said. “I know that frustrated him, but he’s done well and progressed well.
"I think he is to the point now where he is comfortable that he knows the offense. It’s just sometimes until you’ve played games enough, you have an offense and you have rules and you rep in practice, but when you get in a game it’s always a little different than you practice.
“You have got to use your instincts and adjust, and the only way to get better at that is game reps. It was good for him to get a lot of game reps last night. It doesn’t matter who you are playing or what you’re doing, just playing the game you get better every week. One thing he does most of the time is catch the football and that is always the number one trait of a receiver. That is why we’ve got confidence to keep putting him out there.”
The confidence comes from Davis himself as well. Working with his position coach, Kodi Burns, the talented freshman said he is going to get better as he continues to refine and develop at the position.
“Coach Burns has done a real good job of teaching me to be a wide receiver,” Davis said. “In high school I just played wide receiver, just ran around and caught balls. There’s so much more to it. He’s done a good job with me. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better. There’s so much more room to improve.”