Every Monday and Thursday, Plainsman sports staffers Zach Tantillo and Nathan King will analyze an Auburn football player who has a chance to make a sizable impact on the team next season.
Today’s Fortune Teller focuses on junior wide receiver Nate Craig-Myers, Auburn's biggest question mark in an otherwise consistent group.
At the start of the Gus Malzahn era, Auburn’s offense consistently possessed a physical gem of a receiver that was purely a misalliance for opposing defensive backs.
In 2013, it was the blindingly quick Sammie Coates, who led the team in receptions with 42 and seven touchdowns. A year later, he was dethroned by D'haquille Williams’ 45 catches. The two accounted for 49 percent of Auburn’s receiving yards in 2014 to aid Nick Marshall in landing seventh in all-time single-season passing yards (2,532) and first in single-game passing (456 vs. Alabama).
Then the Tigers lost consistency at quarterback. From 2015-16, seven different players passed the football (including a running back, fullback, receiver and punter) and the receiving corps suffered. It didn’t help that Coates and Williams were gone from the lineup.
Malzahn recruited well to reload as Jarrett Stidham, the program’ second 3,000-yard single-season passer, was on his way, unbeknownst to the head coach. Auburn’s ninth-ranked 2016 class featured four-stars Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis and Eli Stove, in addition to three-star Marquis McClain. The production of that quartet since their arrival on The Plains has been polarizing.
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Stove has become a staple of the Tigers offense in his flanker position, carrying jet sweeps from sideline to sideline for gouging chunks of yardage. But McClain has just two career catches after redshirting in 2016, and Davis was dismissed from the program in September 2017 for “breaking team rules.”
That leaves Craig-Myers out to dry. Knighted as “the next Sammie Coates” since his recruitment, the Tampa product hasn’t been a bust, but he hasn’t lit up the stat sheet either. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound wideout had 16 catches last season in a starting role, but six of those came in the last three outings of the season. Craig-Myers held a biweekly hiatus from the pigskin in the meat of the season, going catch-less against Mississippi State, LSU, Texas A&M and Louisiana-Monroe, with only four combined grabs in the three games in between.
Craig-Myers maintains control of a crucial 3rd and long grab after a dinger from Clemson safety Tanner Muse.
“You always go back and watch film and see things you could have done better,” Craig-Myers said of his struggles in the middle of the year. “Sometimes I didn’t get separation and sometimes the defense schemed things up, so we couldn’t get open. I felt like when I didn’t get the ball, I could do something else to help the team.
“(Last season) I just put my head down and went to work. I feel like I could have done a little bit more but overall, I did what I could do for them. “
Craig-Myers will reprise his starting position in 2018 and will do so bearing the responsibility of mentoring Auburn’s surfeit of young receiving talent: Nationally recognized athletes such as Olympic runner Anthony Schwartz; Bo Jackson’s nephew, Shedrick Jackson; and big-play threats Seth Williams and Matthew Hill. As physically imposing recruits entering a multifaceted SEC system with high expectations, they remind Craig-Myers of his younger self.
“I like to be around guys that just work hard,” Craig-Myers said. “Being a junior now, I’ve got to help out and lead. I had guys that showed me the ropes; now I’m trying to do the same with the young guys.
“I feel like (the coaches) are finally believing in me and giving me a chance. They always believed in me, and my teammates always believed, but now it’s that trust factor. I feel like we’re finally getting to that level and it feels good. Whenever they call on me, I’m just trying to make plays and help out my team.”
Craig-Myers bails Stidham out of a busted play with spacial awareness followed by impressive elevation and strength.
Craig-Myers noted in the spring that offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is drawing up packages and deep plays for the receiver. And his head coach plans to have the ball thrown his way.
“Nate is a guy that Kodi (Burns) is asking a lot more of to take that next step, and he’s really responding,” Malzahn said. “You can just sense that; this is the third year in the offense. He just knows it and reacts. He’s helping coach some of those younger guys.”
Craig-Myers can’t help with the injured Stove but will have to step up if fellow starter Will Hastings is tripped up by his ACL injury come fall camp. The optimal lineup consists of Craig-Myers, Darius Slayton, Ryan Davis and Hastings, but Auburn fans shouldn’t be shocked if Malzahn implements a revolving door with the bright-eyed freshman.
Teammates said McClain’s spring improvements will make him “dangerous” next season, and Devan Barrett flashed his signature speed in a position change from tailback to wideout. Ultimately, however, Craig-Myers is the question mark of the group, with Hastings, Stove, Slayton and Davis all cementing their consistency in Stidham’s efficient 2017 campaign.
Auburn needs Stidham’s name to arise in late-season Heisman talks to stay in playoff contention. If Stidham is to become the program’s first back-to-back 3,000-yard passer, he’ll need maximum production from all his pass catchers. If Craig-Myers slumps again and barely tallies 30 catches after three years with the team, the Tiger offense can be expected to stumble. But if he doubles his production and grooms the freshman phenoms into electric weapons, the Auburn offense will be a well-oiled scoring machine.
Catch up on previous installments of the Fortune Teller series:
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