The Starters: Pick four of the following group: WR — Terrell Zachery (6-1, 203, Jr.), Darvin Adams (6-3, 185, So.), DeAngelo Benton (6-2, 192, Fr.); TE — Tommy Trott (6-5, 243, Sr.); H-back — Mario Fannin (5-11, 225, Jr.)
The Backups: WR — Emory Blake (6-1, 192, Fr.), Kodi Burns (6-2, 208, Jr.), Quindarius Carr (6-1, 181, So.) Anthony Gulley (5-9, 176, Fr.), Travante Stallworth (5-9, 183, Fr.); TE — Phillip Lutzenkirchen (6-4, 262, Fr.), Gabe McKenzie (6-5, 252, Sr.); H-back — John Douglas (6-2, 241, So.).
The Wildcards: WR — Tim Hawthorne (6-3, 212, Jr.), Montez Billings (6-2, 183, Sr.)
The Outside Possibilities: WR — Derek Winter (6-0, 200, So.), John Cubelic (6-0, 207, Jr.), Phillip Pierre-Louis (5-8, 157, rFr.); TE — Jay Wisner (6-2, 194, Jr.).
The following is a comprehensive list of the available certainties regarding how the 2009 Auburn receiving corps will perform and which players will play major roles within it:
So. Useful to have a foundation of knowledge to build on, right?
OK, so it’s a longshot for Terrell Zachery not to be heavily involved after his surge in both spring and fall camps, Malzahn’s too concerned with going deep for confirmed best outside options Benton and Adams not to get the lion’s share of time on the edge, Fannin is just too talented to get nudged out of that starting H-back spot, etc. So we’ve got a few crumbs to work with.
But exactly what proportion of catches end up in those guys’ hands, which of them or their backups eventually emerges as the go-to option, who finishes the season on the first string rather than starts it … all of that is well up for debate. (And even Adams’ role is under question with it looking unlikely he plays against La. Tech. Can he afford to fall behind? With a group this inexperienced, probably, but it’s worth asking.)
Of course the biggest question is, simply, How good are these guys? In the case of Fannin and Trott, probably pretty good. Fannin is healthy, focused, committed to his position, and in the hands of a legitimately creative coordinator who I just can’t believe would be foolish enough to ignore arguably the most explosive weapon in Auburn’s skill-position arsenal. He should have a huge year. As for Trott, being asked to split out, run curls, be the safety valve, and only occasionally block down should play to his strengths much more than either Borges’ offense (which asked him to block at the point of attack) or Franklin’s (which turned him into just another wideout, and a slowish one at that). Plus, by this point, Trott’s seen and done it all. He’s not going to suddenly blow up into an All-American, but he looks right now like the steadiest, most reliable receiver in the unit.
Of course, a large part of that is because the wideouts have collectively done the complete opposite of “seen and done it all.” With Billings and Hawthorne out and Carr not looking like a part of Trooper Taylor’s plans, it’s entirely possible that Zachery will be the only Auburn wide receiver to play Saturday who’s ever caught a pass in a college game … and his career reception total equals two. Two total career receptions for the entire wide receiving corps. 2. II. Two.
Fortunately, Taylor has a long and proven track record of turning his receiving charges into quality players regardless of experience or reputation, and despite what you may have heard there is talent here for him to work with. Zachery, Benton, and Blake were all four-star recruits; Adams had a series of quality offers despite his middling ratings; and Billings and Hawthorne, if they return, were both prize recruits themselves once-upon-a-time. If Auburn’s wideouts all play to their potential, the receiving corps won’t just be productive, it’ll be downright deep.
But ah, there’s that nasty big “if” again. If Benton and Blake are truly ready from Day 1. If Burns can pick things up quickly enough to become a worthwhile contributor. If the light really has come on for Zachery and Adams (assuming the latter heals up). If Gulley, Stallworth, and Carr can give us anything other than plays off for the starters. If Billings and Hawthorne can catch up to full speed even after their time off for suspension and injury.
If there’s one positive to all those ifs, it’s that some of them are bound to swing the right way for Auburn. Trooper Taylor’s just not going to put a unit on the field that’s going to struggle as badly as last year’s. (At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.) The guess here, however, is that for the wideouts to really become something more than okey-dokey, it’s that final “if” that’ll have to work itself out. Billings is the kind of steady, sure-handed senior that’s otherwise completely absent from the roster; Hawthorne’s combination of height, speed, and experience is likewise something I’m not sure Auburn can replace or not. If they return and play like they’re capable of, this is one part of the team that should actually progress (rather than wear out) as the season enters its final weeks.
A quick word about the back-ups: I’d expect to see Douglas and McKenzie at H-back and TE, respectively, when there’s running to be done. Both are more accomplished blockers than the players in front of them. Lutzenkirchen, meanwhile, still seems too slight to push anyone other than cornerbacks around–he’ll likely be seen only on passing downs. I wouldn’t think anyone listed under “outside possibilities” above would see more than a handful of garbage time snaps (Taylor’s already hinted he’ll redshirt Winter), but Taylor has been more-than-happy to talk up Wisner, the walk-on from Montana. He’s worth keeping an eye on.
Benton and Fannin quickly prove themselves the team’s two serious receiving threats–Benton as the downfield home-run hitter, Fannin the underneath receiver who turns a five-yard reception into 20–while Trott, Blake, and even Burns give Auburn a respectable number of quality short-yardage options. But with Zachery and Adams more decent than great and Billings and Hawthorne not quite finding their groove, the lack of a second top-shelf downfield threat to compliment Benton limits the unit’s ceiling.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE