Auburn's young wideouts emerging is the key to navigating CFB's toughest first-half slate
That’s the word that best describes the first half of Auburn’s 2021 slate. It consists of a road trip to Penn State, a road trip to LSU and then a home game against Georgia. That’s not including a sneaky tough game against Shawn Elliott’s Georgia State squad, which is sandwiched between the Penn State and LSU road tilts.
You could argue that Auburn has the toughest first-half schedule of anyone in college football.
Fittingly, Alabama might have the beef with that, though that argument could depend on if Miami quarterback D’Eriq King is healthy for the season-opener and if Florida’s new-look offense is ready for the big time in that Week 3 showdown in Gainesville.
What else is daunting? It isn’t just that Bryan Harsin is in Year 1 or that Bo Nix still needs to show he’s capable of being the true face of the program.
Daunting is looking at Auburn’s receivers and realizing the challenge that lies ahead.
Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove accounted for 72% of the team’s receiving yards, and they’re all gone to the NFL. Forget not having someone with world-class speed like Schwartz or not having an established jump-ball guy like Williams. Auburn even doesn’t return a single player who had 100 receiving yards or multiple receiving touchdowns in 2020. Tailbacks Shaun Shivers and Tank Bigsby are the lone returners who reached 10 catches last year, and they had 10 and 11, respectively.
It’s probably also worth a mention that tailback D.J. Williams entered the transfer portal and the ever-versatile tight end/wildcat quarterback JJ Pegues switched to defensive end, and they had 7 catches apiece. When you see the returning production among the Auburn receivers, let’s just say that’s significant.
Here’s what we’re looking at:
That’s 23 catches for 311 yards and 2 touchdowns from 2020 returning at the receiver position. Ten of those catches and 145 of those yards came in the Citrus Bowl. Yikes.
Now that’s not to say that group is destined to struggle. Canion’s emergence in the Citrus Bowl carried into a solid spring, which perhaps quieted some of the lingering concerns about the new-look receiver room. Not to be a wet blanket on the Canion hype train, but he played 29 snaps in 2020 and his 57-yard touchdown in the Citrus Bowl came on a blown coverage from Northwestern’s slot corner, AJ Hampton.
Getting separation against Derek Stingley and Eli Ricks is a different beast.
That’s going to be the challenge for the 6-4 Canion and his fellow 2020 classmates Capers, Hudson and J.J. Evans. That’s a bit more daunting after Capers, Evans and Jackson were banged up in the spring. Learning a new offense is one thing. Learning a new offense after missing out on some valuable reps is another, especially as a receiver being asked to step into a starting role.
Maybe the breakout guy will be third-year sophomore Ja’Varrius Johnson, who is suddenly one of the elder statesmen of the receiver room (even though he only played 8 snaps and didn’t have a catch last year). Both Harsin and Mike Bobo gave Johnson praise for his development in the spring (via Auburn Wire):
“The bottom line is that you get out there, you notice guys on tape – are they coming off the ball, creating space making plays? He has made plays for two days. His ability to get off the ball with speed and urgency has put pressure on the defense. I think we got to get all these receivers exploding off that football and creating stress on the defense, whether we’re running a 6-yard route or a 9 route, which is a go ball or takeoff. He’s looked the same every time.
“When we’re run blocking, you got to explode off the ball, and he’s been doing that.”
It’s pretty simple. One of those unproven guys — Johnson, Canion, Hudson, Capers, Evans, etc. — has to emerge. Either that or Harsin will need to find a veteran wideout via the transfer portal.
We saw Nix struggle even when he had established SEC receivers to work with. If his wideouts are going to be a liability, any thoughts of a Year 3 bump for Nix are out the window.
There’s also the other obvious factor. In an ideal world, teams wouldn’t load the box on Bigsby like he’s Herschel Walker. In an ideal world, Auburn would have a capable passing game and that wouldn’t be an issue. Last year, the Tigers ranked No. 89 in team passing efficiency. You can’t pin that entirely on Chad Morris or the poor offensive line play.
That’s what this all boils down to. Bigsby is Auburn’s most valuable weapon, and maybe, the SEC’s, too. Keeping him healthy, especially with such limited depth behind him, is of the utmost importance. Putting him in spots where he can actually hit the second level with a head of steam will be the goal for Bobo.
Last year at South Carolina, Bobo still produced a quality rushing attack despite the fact that the Gamecocks couldn’t stretch the field with the passing game. That team at least had a legitimate, NFL-ready wideout in Shi Smith. He became a target machine.
Does Auburn have a target machine? Because you know those key 3rd-and-8 conversion attempts are coming early and often for Nix and Co. Nix knows all too well about being 1-dimensional against Kirby Smart, and when you’re in raucous road atmospheres like Penn State and LSU, you’d better be on the same page as your wideouts.
In Nix’s 2 games against Georgia, he averaged 4.7 yards per attempt. In Nix’s 9 career road games, he averaged 5.7 yards per attempt.
Daunting doesn’t equate to impossible, though. It just means that Auburn’s passing game is facing some serious hurdles from the jump. Well, check that. With all due respect to Akron and FCS Alabama State, it gets real in Week 3.
If Auburn doesn’t have its receiver situation figured out by then, 3 losses by the end of the second weekend in October is very much on the table. Auburn fans know that. So does Harsin.
The Year 1 transition would get a whole lot easier if his young wideouts burst onto the scene.