AUBURN, Ala. — With two-a-days slated to begin in less than a month, a quarterback undoubtedly remains Auburn’s biggest question mark for a second straight year.
But who that player will be throwing to is becoming nearly as big of a concern.
In the three months since the Tigers wrapped up spring practice, the uncertainty surrounding Auburn’s suspect receiving corps has only increased.
Tim Hawthorne, tabbed by nearly everyone as the player most likely to break out in 2009, recently broke a bone in his foot and could miss all of August practice. Harry Adams, a converted cornerback who switched to wideout in the spring because of his big-play ability, is back on defense because of depth concerns.
Montez Billings, the only returning receiver who caught more than 20 passes last year, remains in academic limbo. And nobody is quite sure how Philip Pierre-Louis, a Tony Franklin favorite, will return after tearing up his knee in last season’s opener.
“It’s wide open,” said junior Terrell Zachery, who emerged from the spring as a tentative starter, along with Hawthorne and Darvin Adams. “We had a depth chart from the spring, but once camp starts, it’s back wide open.”
Although they put up meager numbers, three of the Tigers’ top-four wide receivers from last year are gone. While Rod Smith, who led the team with 30 catches for 332 yards, was the most dependable of the group, Robert Dunn had big-play potential and Chris Slaughter, who ended his turbulent Auburn career by leaving the program in the offseason, showed flashes of his promise.
Besides Billings, no other returning wide receiver caught more than eight passes last season (although Tommy Trott, a tight end who could be used in a more receiver-like role this year, caught 20 passes.)
The uncertainty could lead to opportunity for a pair of incoming freshmen, DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake, both of whom have impressed teammates during summer workouts.
Benton, a 6-foot-2, 192 pound former five-star recruit from Bastrop, La., is a freshman in name only. He is two years removed from high school and prepped at Hargrave Military Academy. After not playing last year to get his academics in order, he’s shaken off some rust while learning Gus Malzahn’s system this summer, trying to refine his route-running.
“He’s a great athlete and I can tell he knows the game well,” quarterback Neil Caudle said.
“He’s going to be a great receiver,” cornerback Walt McFadden said. “Trust me, I think we’re going to see some big plays out of him.”
Blake, the 6-foot-1, 192 pound son of former Bengals quarterback Jeff Blake, has a shot to get on the field immediately as well, mostly because Auburn might need him to.
“A lot of freshmen are standing out,” McFadden said. “They’re making freshman mistakes as well. But we’re going to need those guys and those older guys to pull them along.”
That older group — one that includes Quindarius Carr, Darvin Adams, Hawthorne and Zachery — is hoping for a fresh start. Zachery especially. The junior, who set Alabama state receiving records while at Class 1A Wadley High, has been nearly silent since coming to the Plains, with two career catches in three years.
Displeased with his role, Zachery contemplated transferring if the previous coaching staff remained. Instead, Auburn cleaned house.
Gene Chizik and, more importantly to Zachery, wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor came in preaching a clean slate. Zachery responded with a strong spring, culminating in a 70-yard touchdown run on an option play during the A-Day scrimmage.
He knows the receivers, including himself, need to step up their game if Auburn is to make a marked improvement in a passing game that ranked 99th nationally last year, averaging a meager 165.4 yards per game. And despite the offseason uncertainty, Zachery thinks the current crop of receivers, given a fair chance, is up to the task.
“I don’t feel like we really have (lived up to expectations), but I know we’re a lot better than what people think we are,” he said. “And that’s one thing that we’re going to do this year: we’re going to prove it.”