No one touched Eli Stove.
When the blindingly quick receiver tore his ACL last spring — just days before the University’s 2018 spring break — Stove didn’t know he had hurt himself.
After running a routine route in drills and making a quick cut, he pulled up and slightly limped off the practice field. He walked it off — well, tried to walk it off — before the sting set in on the sideline. He was then evaluated in the training room, where Auburn’s medical staff delivered the news.
That was March 20, 2018. On March 19, 2019, Stove told reporters his knee felt “way better” than it did in the fall and that he could tell it was improving every day.
For Stove, this spring was going to be all about mindset.
“I’ve just got to keep pushing through,” Stove said last month. “It’s going to hurt a little bit, but it’s healed all the way. It’s just the mental side of everything, but I know I’m healed, and I think I’ll be ready for the season.”
Though Stove has said all the right things this offseason, the frustration has been apparent. Ask him about his brace, and he’ll glance down at it, tap the metal with his fingertips and shake his head: I just wish it was gone.
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Wish granted, Eli.
After Auburn’s 2019 A-Day spring game, in which he caught four passes for 63 yards and a touchdown, Stove said the glorified scrimmage was the last time he'll have to wear the brace.
“Good. Real good,” Stove said of how his knee felt at A-Day. “I was tired of sitting out. Last season, I didn’t like what I was doing on the sideline. I’m glad to be out there playing.”
Stove redshirted 2018 after appearing in just four games. Although Auburn’s receivers weren’t lacking in production last year — what with Seth Williams’ SEC All-Freshman campaign, Ryan Davis’ record-breaking season and Anthony Schwartz’s world-class speed — Gus Malzahn still missed one of his experienced offensive weapons had been out there.
“Really good to get Eli out there,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after A-Day. “Of course, Eli is a guy that we missed him sorely last year. He’s an NFL-type player… really worked hard on the intermediate routes and the deep routes. When he gets the ball in his hands, he can really do some things.”
Stove’s veteran presence of mind flashed particularly well on one play Saturday — when true freshman quarterback Bo Nix needed him most. After an offensive pass interference penalty on Stove erased a Nix touchdown pass to tight end John Samuel Shenker, Auburn's "Orange" team offense — Nix and the first-team offensive unit — was forced into a third-and-goal from the 11.
The defensive line jumped the snap, and with a "free" play, Stove followed Nix on his scramble for the score.
Stove also elicited cheers from the 41,489 gathered in Jordan-Hare on the spring game's opening play — a 28-yard catch from the arm of Joey Gatewood.
Williams went on to win A-Day offensive MVP with four catches for 103 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and redshirt freshman Matthew Hill scored twice on five receptions for 128 yards. Redshirt junior Marquis McClain has emerged as a leader on and off the field this spring, and former JUCO product Sal Cannella will be the lone senior in the rotation next year. Schwartz and tailback Shaun Shivers will return to the team in the fall from their track and field responsibilities.
Stove will be looking to work his way back into the thick of that deep and talented receivers revolving door with his signature speed on the edge and quickness with the ball in his hands. But even when the brace comes off in fall camp, Stove knows he still won't be completely back to form yet. More fuel to his fire.
“Me, I don’t think I’m 100 percent yet," Stove said, "just because I like to build on things. I just want to get better at everything I do.”
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