A-Day is complete, and now fans will have to wait over four months for their next taste of Auburn football.
With the long gap between the next time Auburn will step on the field and now, it is the perfect time of the year for speculation, dissection and more importantly, overreaction to Auburn’s A-Day.
Matthew Hill will replace Ryan Davis and lead the team in receptions
After redshirting his first season on The Plains, Matthew Hill got his chance to show his abilities in front of the Auburn crowd at this year’s A-Day and he was more than impressive.
“Hill is a guy that we had high expectations for when we recruited him,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That was real good to see him make some plays in front of the crowd. He has had a very solid spring. He’s a guy that has a chance to make big plays. It was a great catch he made over his shoulder on that first one and, of course, we threw a little tunnel to the field on that last one and you see he has a little bit of acceleration. He’s got a chance to be really good player for us.”
Hill led Auburn in receptions, targets, receiving yards and tied the lead for touchdowns with two on the day.
Auburn’s receiving unit has a big hole missing with the departure of all-time receptions leader, Ryan Davis. Who better to replace Davis than Hill, who showed his ability to get separation from the defense and have a high-percentage catch rate?
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Hill even sees the comparison in skill sets between him and Davis. A big reason for that is the fact that Davis served almost as a mentor for Hill during his redshirt season.
“I think I’m more like an R-Dave, the kind of role that he had — just kind of get the ball in space, make somebody miss,” Hill said. “Not just do whatever with the ball but do what you can and don't try to do too much. Just make a play.
“I've learned a lot. Someone in my shoes, I would say I'm blessed to be behind somebody like R-Dave,” Hill said. “You learn a lot, like — leadership, coming out of your breaks. Anything you think of, he'll sit down and talk with you and get you better, get your mind right in any situation. He'll pray for you. I'm blessed to have a role model.”
Seth Williams will make first team All-SEC
Auburn’s Offensive MVP of A-Day did not disappoint and showed that he could be one of the most dangerous receivers not only in the conference, but the country.
Williams only needed one half to earn the award, where he caught four passes on four targets for 103 yards and two touchdowns. Williams is the go-to guy for Auburn when the team needs a receiver to go up a get the catch on a 50-50 ball – including a few during A-Day.
“Especially this league, you have to because you’re going to get some 1-on-1 opportunities,” Malzahn said about Williams’ ability to catch the ball in traffic. “A lot of times they’re going to roll and extra safety down and they’re going to win. You’ve got to have somebody that can win on the outside. It was good to see Seth make some of those plays.”
With Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis gone, Auburn is in search of a lot of receiving production and Williams showed that he is willing to take that next step to avoid the “sophomore slump” and become an All-SEC talent that Auburn needs.
“I really heard about that sophomore slump,” Williams said. “After the freshman season, they were like, ‘Yeah, now you can’t have that sophomore slump.’ So that’s when I first heard about it. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can’t do that.’ So, I’m trying to push through that. I don’t want to have a sophomore slump. Spring, I’m just trying to get better with the small things. Through the summer, I’m just going to work with the small things and try to get better and get ready for the fall.”
Joey Gatewood and Cam Newton comparisons might be right
The quarterback battle at Auburn has been the most talked about storyline of Auburn’s offseason. Joey Gatewood, a 6-foot-5, 233-pound quarterback has garnered comparisons to the former Heisman winner from before he even took a snap for the Tigers.
Those expectations and comparisons add a lot of pressure to a player and put their performances under a microscope. At last season’s A-Day, Gatewood was no where near the Newton comparisons, completing only four of his 14 attempts for zero yards.
But this spring, Gatewood has gotten praise for his improved confidence and ability.
“He’s a different quarterback than he was at this time last year,” Malzahn said. “He does have more confidence. He has really been focused and really desperate to win the job. So, he’s had a very good spring.”
Despite not being able to display his ability to use his legs and athleticism at A-Day, Gatewood was head-and-shoulders above where he was last season. He completed 7-of-10 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns.
After the game, both Malzahn and players stressed that Gatewood’s performance was not close to what he can do once the quarterbacks can go live and even bringing back those Newton comparisons.
“Baby Cam Newton. I’m telling you. He’s another Cam Newton back there,” Williams said. “Once he gets live, he turns into a whole ’nother person. Like, you couldn’t see it for real with this spring, with the scrimmage, the QB’s not live—but once they’re live, I don’t think, they can’t get back there. If they get back there he’s going to run it and he’s going to still have his eyes downfield to throw it. But he can run it. He can run good.”
Gatewood would like it to be known that he does not like the comparisons to the former Heisman Trophy winner, but it is safe to say that it will be hard to shake the comparisons between the two with more performances like at A-Day.
“A running back, or Cam Newton,” Hill said. “I'm not going to sit here and lie to you — he doesn't like being compared to Cam Newton, but that's just the only person you can compare him to… He doesn't like it because he thinks he's himself. He doesn't like to be compared to nobody. He's doing his thing by himself.”
The quarterback battle is anything more than a two-man race
A-Day offered the first glimpse of all four of the quarterbacks that have been involved in the on-going quarterback battle this spring. All four played well and with efficiency, leaving the idea that the race is still wide open, or did it.
Alongside Gatewood’s production that was mentioned earlier, true freshman Bo Nix, Malik Willis and Cord Sandberg showed some positive things.
Nix and Gatewood were the two quarterbacks taking first-team reps. Nix was the arguably the best passer on the day, throwing 11-16 for 155 yards and two touchdowns in the first half with the first-team offense – including an 11-yard scrambling touchdown pass to Eli Stove. Nix did throw one pass for the Blue Team in the second half that was intercepted.
Willis was the first to throw a touchdown out of the quarterbacks with a 41-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown pass to Matthew Hill. He finished the day completing nine of 10 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown.
Sandberg did not get as many chances to throw the ball down the field, but he still completed eight of nine passes for 54 yards.
Despite Willis having an impressive showing without having ability to use his legs, there is something to be said about the fact that Nix and Gatewood have separated themselves as the two first-team quarterbacks, but Malzahn is keeping tight lipped about the future of the situation, while the players were not as withholding with their opinions.
“That was just, you know. Coach Dillingham, every day, he has an order,” Malzahn said. “They’re competing every day and there’s been different orders every day. It just happened to be that coming into this game. We’ve got a lot of good information from 15 practices now, three scrimmages, so it was really good. We’ll assess everything. We’ll have a good week this coming up week to assess all positions and really step back and kind of get good plan about offensively, who we’re going to be next year.”
“Both of them are straight ballers,” Hill said. “Both came in ready to play. Joey, I've been with him since I came in, so I've seen him develop. I knew what I was kind of expecting out of both of them. I'm proud of the way both of them played.”
Derrick Brown will somehow improve his draft stock further
Once someone is already been a projected top-10 pick in many mock drafts, it is hard to move up but easy to fall.
Not for Derrick Brown.
After a career season where he was sixth on the team in tackles (48), second on the team in sacks (4.5) and third on the team in tackles for loss (10.5), it was suspected that he would declare for the NFL Draft.
He instead chose to come back to Auburn for another season to lead a defensive line that could be a top-5 unit in the country.
“This is college football. If you’re going to perform, you’ve got to be able to perform,” Brown said. “I don’t think it puts any more pressure on us. If the offense is struggling, the defense is going to have their back. And if we’re struggling, the offense has our back. It’s just one of those things you’ve got to put into the perspective of ‘to each his own’ and to have your brother’s back.”
Brown picked up right where he left off last season in Auburn’s A-Day where he picked up an Orange Team-high four tackles, including another team high with two sacks.
“He’s an impact player,” Malzahn said. “He’s got a lot of big-game experience and he’s one of the best players in our league.”
Auburn will not have a 1,000-yard rusher for the second consecutive season
Last season, Auburn snapped a nine-year streak of having a 1,000-yard rusher and this year does not seem to be a year the Tigers recapture the past success – but for different reasons.
One of the main reasons for last year’s failure was the emergence of a go-to running back that could carry the ball 20-25 times a game every week.
Fast forward to this 2019 team and instead of one person emerging as a candidate, Auburn has a handful of running backs that will share time in the backfield that will hinder its ability to have the one guy that can carry the load.
Freshman D.J. Williams has emerged as an unexpected weapon this spring and led the team in rushing yards on A-Day with 10 carries for 56 yards.
“D.J. had a very good spring,” Malzahn said. “That one run he made had the wow factor. He broke a couple of good tackles against good tacklers and had some acceleration and almost spun out of there. He’s a really good runner and he showed a lot of toughness for a true freshman. It was good to see him out there make plays today.”
The returning veterans JaTarvious Whitlow and Kam Martin did not see many reps in the scrimmage but Whitlow was second on the team in rush yardage with seven carries for 44 yards. Martin added 20 yards on only three carries.
“[Whitlow] has a year of experience,” Malzahn said. “He's a lot more comfortable and knows kind of what's going on a lot better. That's to be expected. Kam Martin's the same way. Those are the two experienced guys. And they should be, you know, thinking ahead and everything that goes with that.”
Harold Joiner – who split time as a receiver – had 21 yards on six carries and added three catches for 28 yards. His versatility has been a talking point this spring after redshirting in 2018, emerging as someone who could see a big uptick in playing time.
“He’s versatile,” Malzahn said. “We’ve talked about that. He’s like a receiver, but also when you give him the ball, you see he has acceleration, he’s got burst. He’s a really big guy too. He’s a guy we really feel like we can move around next year and try to get some matchups we like. I really like his versatility and been very impressed with his toughness. He’s really had a good, physical spring. The fact that he’s kind of playing two positions, being young, I think that says a lot about him too. It was good to see him. He protected the football when he carried it.”
All of this was without track star Shaun Shivers, who was third on the team in rushing yards and carries in 2018.
Anthony Schwartz is also still in track season and did not play in A-Day but his and Stove’s ability to run the ball on jet sweeps is another factor that will take away from the chance of having a 1,000-yard rusher.
“We feel really confident that we can run the ball, especially with having a senior line and a lot of experience at running back,” Auburn offensive lineman Jack Driscoll said. “And we're bringing in some guys. Obviously, we don't have Shaun Shivers here right now, but he's just another weapon that we have at the running back position that really makes us more deep and able to keep guys more fresh and not have to rely on one person too much.”
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