AUBURN, Ala. — In the waning minutes of the Ole Miss game, Auburn’s Travante Stallworth made a heady play, taking a handoff on a speed sweep but not running toward the sideline.
He got just enough for a first down before being tackled in bounds. It kept the clock moving and sealed the Tigers’ win, validating the coaches’ decision to give a freshman the ball at such a crucial point of the game.
“I think he is one of the younger guys that have really come on,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
It was the biggest play to date for the freshman, a 5-foot-10, 186-pound converted quarterback from Leesville, La., who has seen his playing time increase the last few weeks.
Stallworth has assumed the speed sweep role following injuries to Onterio McCalebb and Anthony Gulley. He had two carries for 22 yards against Ole Miss, including the clincher at the end.
“I was kind of surprised that he wanted me to try to do that,” Stallworth said, “but it just shows that he has great confidence in me handling the ball.”
Stallworth’s role has increased incrementally this year. His two catches for 21 yards are the most of Auburn’s four freshman receivers and he’s averaging 10.7 yards on three carries, all on the sweep play that is an integral part of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s offense, which thrives on misdirection.
“He gets the big picture,” Chizik said. “He understands where he can fit on our special teams. He understands his role offensively better than he did when he got here. ... I think he has grown up. He is maturing, even though he is a young kid, as a football player.”
It’s involved a lot of moving. Stallworth has worked at plenty of positions, as a receiver, in an H-back role and even some as the Wildcat quarterback, although he hasn’t done so in a game.
“Wherever they need me or whatever they need me to do, I’m going to do it just to help the team win,” Stallworth said.
Better late than never
Terrell Zachery has emerged as the big-play receiver everybody thought he would be during two unproductive years on the Plains.
Ask his teammates, and they always knew that would be the case.
“It’s up to the coaches,” running back Ben Tate said. “I bet you can ask a bunch of guys on the team that have been here since T-Zach has been here, we all know he can play.
“We asked him, ‘Were you doing something wrong? Were you doing this or that?’ But you can’t really get into that because you’re not supposed to and it really isn’t any of your business, but we all knew he could play. He’s just getting his opportunity.”
Zachery, who set the Alabama high school state record for career receiving yards with 4,672 at Class 1A Wadley, had two catches his first two years at Auburn.
Through nine games this season, he has 22 catches for 437 yards and four touchdowns.
He caught two deep passes last week. One went for 42 yards, the other for 41. It stretched the defense and opened things up for the rest of the offense.
“Those are the catches that spark a football team,” Chizik said. “That was what we needed somebody to do.”
Tate’s 1,067 rushing yards are the most in the SEC. He’s third in the conference in yards per game with 118.6, trailing only Alabama’s Mark Ingram (125.5 ypg) and Mississippi State’s Anthony Dixon (125.1 ypg).
Tate has six touchdowns, including a 53-yarder last week in which he pulled away from Ole Miss defenders.
“He may be better than you guys expected,” running backs coach Curtis Luper told reporters. “He’s faster than I thought he was. That’s what he is. No one in the SEC has caught him yet.”
The Web site NFLDraftScout.com projects Tate as a fourth- to fifth-round pick in next spring’s draft.
“I think I’ve helped myself tremendously this year,” he said.