Despite spring ACL injuries to deep threat Will Hastings and flanker Eli Stove, Gus Malzahn has shown little concern about his receiver depth in Auburn’s fall practices.
It encouraged coaches that during the first day of camp, the pass-catching duo was seen running normal drills with Kodi Burns’ group — moving with quickness while sporting leg braces.
"They're progressing very well," Malzahn said of Hastings and Stove after Day 1 of fall camp. "I'm not ready to say when they return, other than the fact that they're progressing very well.”
Malzahn already said at SEC Media Days he expects Hastings by the middle of the season, but no timetable has been revealed for Stove just yet. The Tigers can’t bank on an early return from the pair and will hash out their receiving portion of the depth chart without the two veterans. But in their absence, Auburn’s blue-chip freshmen are earning their stars.
“The three receivers really caught my eye,” Malzahn said of four-star freshmen Matthew Hill, Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz after Day 3 of fall camp. “And then I will say (Shaun) Shivers, too, the running back. He plays at a different speed. Schwartz plays at a different speed.”
According to their rave reviews, the highly recruited crop of skill position freshmen is panning out exactly to Malzahn’s liking after just a few days of practice. Schwartz and Shivers were hot topics in the summer thanks to their world-class speed, but the smooth entrances of Williams and Hill have been just as eye-opening for the offense as the shells went on Sunday and they began taking more shots from the defensive backs.
“(Matthew Hill has) done really well; he’s a quick kid,” junior receiver Darius Slayton said. “I think he’ll really be able to help us. He gets in and out of his breaks well and he has good hands … someone like Seth (Williams) stands out because he’s a big-body kid with big hands, so he does a good job taking contact and holding onto the ball. They’ll just get better as time goes on.”
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Of course, Schwartz and Shiver’s sheer speed can’t be ignored, as Auburn’s second-team defenders have been made to take note of the duo’s explosive play styles. Slayton was elated to add their renowned talent and athleticism to the corps, even though the junior must now relinquish his label of fastest Tiger.
“It’s funny — I’m not the fastest guy on the offense anymore,” Slayton joked. “They’re really impressive to watch, both Anthony and Shaun. Shaun’s a little shorter so when he’s accelerating, it really looks like he’s moving.”
“You can tell his speed is different from everyone else’s,” senior receiver Ryan Davis said of Schwartz. “He’s going to continue to get better with more repetition.”
Through all his previous preseason camps and signing days, Malzahn has visibly been enthusiastic about the probable production from his incoming freshmen, but seldom lingered on a single player’s ability, often affirming his anticipation for the group as a whole. That was different Sunday, yes, but Malzahn still declared that the first-years have been all-around impressive — so much so that non-special teams playing time in the opener against No. 6 Washington isn’t off the table for several of them.
“I would say the coaches right now are pleased with where the whole group is, which that’s kind of rare,” Malzahn said. “Because usually after three days, you know, guys, it may take them a year and all that stuff. I don’t think that’s the case with this group.
“Of course, when we recruited them, we felt like it would be a really good group anyway … it’s early, but right now, I’d say we feel really good about the group as a whole.”
It’s no surprise Malzahn is looking to get Jarrett Stidham all the help he can get against Washington. The Huskies captured 15 interceptions last season while allowing just 10 passing touchdowns — even the veteran Slayton, Davis and Nate Craig-Myers will have their hands full. But there’s been no shortage of confidence that the freshmen will challenge not just Washington’s unit, but the 11-plus other defenses on Auburn’s schedule.
“Some of them have the talent, no doubt,” Slayton said of freshman wideouts playing in Game 1. “It’s just a matter of them getting the plays down and being consistent. Even in these first three days, some of them have shown really good flashes, and I believe they’ll be able to help us in the first game and all year.”
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