According to head coach Bryan Harsin and company at SEC Media Day, things are coming together in the wide receiver room for Auburn following a season where the receiving core was arguably the biggest weakness to the team.
At the forefront of the jump in production at receiver this offseason is wide receiver coach Ike Hilliard. Hilliard is entering his first full season at Auburn in 2022 after being hired midway through the 2021 campaign.
“Extremely excited about Ike [Hilliard] and happy that he's with us and looking forward to what he's going to do with that wide receiver room,” Harsin said. “Now he's got more depth, more players. He's got guys to go out there and compete. I think that's going to be a big part of that room succeeding in the future.”
Adding to the lack of receivers from last season, the departure of leading receiver Kobe Hudson, who amassed 44 catches for 580 yards in 2021, raised many questions about who the Tigers could throw the ball to this season. Auburn will also be without its third leading receiver, Demetrius Robertson, who used his last year of eligibility as a graduate player last season.
However, as Harsin mentioned, the receiver room has gotten a few upgrades, and Hilliard now has some talent to work with. The name who came up the most in conversations with Harsin, running back Tank Bigsby and tight end John Samuel Shenker at SEC Media Day is LSU transfer Koy Moore.
Moore only gathered five catches for 71 yards last season, but he hauled in 22 catches for 177 yards in 2020. The sophomore is yet to grab a collegiate touchdown, but his teammates recognize his hard work and expect him to make big contributions to the Auburn offense in the fall.
“I see him out there catching at nine o’clock in the facility at night,” Bigsby said. “Catching balls by himself and doing drills, running routes with Zach Calzada. When one guy sees somebody work, they're going to go work, and that’s where I feel like we worked so hard to get to this point.”
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However, Moore and Hilliard are just the start of a revamped receiver group. The Tigers are still counting on some veteran hands to make some plays.
“I think [Moore] is going to be a great asset for us,” Shenker said. “He's got some experience, and he's shown what he can do on the field… We have [Dazalin] Worsham as well from Miami. Those guys possess great speed, so we're excited about them. And we still have some big guys: Shedrick Jackson and Malcolm Johnson that we believe are very key to our success this year as well.”
While last season’s leading receiver is gone, Jackson was a close second, recording just 53 yards and four grabs fewer than Hudson. Ja’Varrius Johnson and Malcolm Johnson Jr. are two more returning receivers who saw the field in 2021, each reaching the end zone once and going for 274 and 82 yards, respectively.
Another big asset to Auburn’s pass catchers is the conversion of Landen King from tight end to wide receiver. The sophomore snagged five catches last year for 59 yards, but he made a name for himself with a one-handed five-yard touchdown catch in traffic in overtime in the Iron Bowl.
Standing at 6-foot-5 and weighing 214 pounds, the Texas native does not lack the size and physicality necessary to be an explosive receiver. With plenty of options at tight end, the receiving core seems to be the group that needs his athleticism the most.
“Yeah, we'll miss him in the tight end room,” Shenker said. “I mean, right now, that's what's best for our team is to have him there (at WR), and he's done great with the transition. Coach Hilliard is going to coach him up well. I know he will. He's a bigger guy, so the creates mismatches down the field. We're excited about that.”
That leaves the tight ends, who had a much bigger role in Auburn’s offense in Harsin’s first year at Auburn, to throw the ball to, and Auburn has no shortage of them.
It helps when you have a sixth-year, returning starter at tight end. At that, one of the best in the conference. He is coming off a season where he set the record for the most receptions and yards by an Auburn tight end in a single season with 33 catches for 413 yards.
Retuning for his sixth year of eligibility, he is currently seventh in program history for career receptions at the tight end position and fifth in receiving yards. The Albany, Georgia native is nearing Philip Lutzenkirchen’s total, sitting 57 yards shy of taking his spot at fourth overall in receiving yards by an Auburn tight end.
“[Shenker] is going to have a tremendous season,” Harsin said. “Broke records last year as a tight end. Continues to improve each and every day. Just his mentality that he brings to our team and to this program is extremely important to our success.”
But Shenker isn’t Auburn’s only sure-handed tight end. The Tigers have two guys behind him, Tyler Fromm and Luke Deal, who are returning after combining for 17 catches and 158 yards last season. The duo are both heading into their junior seasons, and they both proved that they are trustworthy options to toss the ball to in 2022.
With the combination of two new transfer receivers, the transformation of Landen King, an incoming class packed with receivers and several veteran options combined with a receivers coach that has worked hard with them going into his first full season, look for this receiver room to have a much higher ceiling than it did last season.
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