AUBURN — Auburn's wide receivers finally walked off the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium and headed to the Kona Ice truck parked on Heisman Drive at about the same time reporters were emptying out of the media room underneath stadium Wednesday.
The team’s second fall camp scrimmage had ended a little more than 30 minutes prior, but receivers stayed behind, running sprints up and down the field
The biggest thing coach Gus Malzahn wanted to see Wednesday was how Auburn’s offense would respond after getting “dominated” by the defense in the first scrimmage. And for the most part, he was pleased.
The offense is “starting to look like an Auburn offense,” he said. The only issue was the play of the team’s wide receivers.
“Our receivers were a little inconsistent. We had a couple of big drops that really would have kept drives alive and probably would have put points on the board as far as that goes,” Malzahn said. “The offense overall really rebounded. … If we get out the inconsistencies with a few drops, I think we would have felt a little bit better about that.”
Some of those inconsistencies stem from the fact that the top four wide receivers on a team replacing last year's leaders Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis are either out completely (Anthony Schwartz) or are being limited (Eli Stove, Will Hastings and Seth Williams) because of injury. Malzahn said Williams participated in two-minute drills Wednesday but did not take part in the scrimmage.
“You know, there's a couple guys we're just trying to be smart with,” Malzahn said. “It'll be fine.”
The Tigers have used those limitations as an opportunity to try “to develop some depth” at the position, including with older players who haven’t started before such as Marquis McClain, Sal Cannella and graduate transfer Zach Farrar. But, based on Malzahn’s comments, the results have been hit or miss.
“You’re only as good as the next man, and that’s fact, you know what I’m saying? We don’t hide from it. We don’t shy from it, because you got to be realistic,” Cannella said Monday. “Anyone can go down at any moment. You just got to be prepared.”
There two receivers Malzahn and players spoke most highly of Wednesday were Matthew Hill and Jay Jay Wilson. Hill, a redshirt freshman who was a higher-rated recruit than both Williams and Schwartz last season, has split time between split end and flanker and is “getting most of the reps with the ones right now.”
“He’s one of those guys we’re really need to take that next step,” Malzahn said. “He showed flashes. He made a couple of ‘wow plays.’ We just have to be consistent with everything that goes on.”
Wilson, a graduate transfer from Arizona State competing for a role at both H-back and tight end this season, has “really stood out so far just wanting the ball and attacking the ball and really doing a good job overall,” Malzahn said.
“He's a baller. He can do everything,” running back Kam Martin added. “He hasn't dropped a ball. He dropped one today, but that was his first ball he ever dropped in fall camp.”
Schwartz remains questionable for the Aug. 31 opener against Oregon after undergoing surgery for a broken hand, but Malzahn said the other three would be able to play if Auburn had a game today. That's good, because that quartet has combined to catch 140 passes for 2,020 yards in their Auburn careers. McClain, Cannella, Hill and newcomers Farrar and Wilson have combined to catch just 22 passes for 286 yards at the FBS level.
No update on QB
Auburn’s second scrimmage featured more of an emphasis on throwing the ball than the first last week. Given that Malzahn said that the offense is “starting too look like an Auburn offense,” it’s probably fair to assume that quarterbacks Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix played a big role in that.
That doesn’t mean Auburn’s quarterback competition is any closer to being decided, though.
“I think any time you scrimmage — like I said last time — it's going to give us great information. Sitting here today, I can't really tell you any more than I did last time, other than the fact we have two scrimmages now. And we're getting more and more information. I thought both guys, at times, had a very solid day today,” Malzahn said.
Nix has received the first reps at practice over Gatewood and was reportedly the first quarterback on the field with the first-team offense, but Malzahn said the two split reps evenly during two-minute situations.
Two of the three quarterback competitions that have stretched into fall camp during Malzhan’s tenure as head coach — the one Nick Marshall won in 2013 and the one Jarrett Stidham took in 2017 — were decided by the end of fall camp (which is Sunday, before the first day of classes on Monday), but Malzahn said the starter will be named whenever it feels right” because “you want to be, like, really clear.”
Players that have been made available to the media have not commented on whether there has been any separation in the competition.
Focus on special teams
The first portion the scrimmage was dedicated to special teams, specifically live field goal and field goal block and live punt and punt return.
Auburn blocked seven kicks/punts last season, so building on that success is an emphasis. Malzahn also wants to develop more depth on the offensive line on field goal attempts so none of the team’s own kicks are blocked.
Hill, Christian Tutt and Javaris Davis each got reps at punt returner. Malzahn said there isn’t “a whole lot of separation” between them right now. One of the drills the team put them through was sky kicks, which are high punts inside the red zone where the returner has to decide whether to call a fair catch or let the ball bounce.
“We were average last year at executing sky kicks,” Malzahn said. “It was good for our returners to get back on the 10-yard line and have to make decisions and all that.”