AUBURN, Ala. — Changes were needed in Sammie Coates’ life.
That much, he was sure of. They were necessary because he took stock of the person he had become — and he didn’t like what he saw. He cared only about himself. He wasn’t as invested in football as he needed to be. The same went for his schoolwork.
Yes, Auburn’s sophomore receiver realized last year he needed to undergo a self-transformation.
“It's just the little things I really haven't been focused (on),” he said. “I've always been putting myself ahead of everything else. I just figured out that it isn't all about me. We've got a team. We've got a family outside this place.”
Namely, Coates noted, his church family.
Rededicating himself to the Christian faith was the main component driving his wholesale lifestyle alterations. And Coates has a teammate to thank for it in fellow receiver Trovon Reed. Prior to the start of the season, the junior confided in Coates that he wanted to get baptized.
Reed ended up doing just that.
But after initially speaking with his teammate about it, Coates felt led to do the same.
“Both of us became leaders on our own team and it's one of the big things that helped us out,” he said. “I'm so thankful to him coming up to me and talking to me about doing it. It's one of the biggest steps I could have made in my life.”
To assure others these changes weren’t for show, Coates pointed to his day-to-day mind-set. No matter who he speaks with, he always comports himself in an optimistic manner. Whether it’s a face-to-face conversation or one done via Twitter, he refuses to express any negativity.
“I always show my best,” he said. “I always pray before I get on the field. I pray before every game. And on Twitter and Facebook every night, it’s something (positive). People always comment, ‘Oh, he’s a great man,’ but I don’t do that just to do it.”
Coates does it, he said, to lift others up.
It’s made even easier when you’re able to take your cues from the person in charge.
“He always makes sure we do the right thing, he always make sure we help others and that's one thing I took into my life,” Coates said of Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. “It's not all about us. We've got people around us that look up to us every day. You can't take the wrong mind-set out there to the world, so I always take the positive mind-set.”
When Coates gets on the field, it’s the same mentality: he’s perpetually upbeat.
In addition, he’s unfailingly modest.
Despite leading the Tigers in every major receiving category, he refrains from praising himself. The stats are self-explanatory; Coates is the Tigers’ No. 1 receiver.
But he refuses to view himself as such.
“We've got so many great playmakers on the outside, just the opportunities I get, I take advantage of it. I don't look it as me being a ‘playmaker,’” Coates said. “I just look at it as going out there, giving me a chance and finishing a play. That's good for all our guys. We have so much talent in one room, it's kind of hard to have one designated guy to go to.”
Try as one might, Coates repeats the ‘pass-catcher by-committee’ mantra at every opportunity.
Still, the numbers remain, highlighting the chasm that exists between Coates and the rest of Auburn’s receiving corps.
And if Coates didn’t want to talk about himself, others were more than happy to fill in the gaps.
“Sammie (has) stepped up,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He’s been a big-play guy for us. He’s been very consistent at a position we needed to be at, and I think he’s only going to continue to get better.”
Lashlee’s mentor struck a similar chord.
“He’s improved each game,” Malzahn said of Coates. “Obviously he gives us a deep threat. Any time you’ve got a guy who can run as tall as him, and can jump, that’s a threat. When his time has come, and when his number has been called, he’s delivered this year.”
That has been perhaps the most surprising aspect of Coates season: that he has produced at such a high level. As a redshirt freshman last season, he had just six catches for 114 yards. One year later, he’s reeled in 38 receptions for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. What's more, his 22.1 yards per catch is the second-best in the FBS, trailing only Baylor’s Tevin Reese (25.0 yards per reception).
How did such a drastic uptick in performance come about?
Straightforward as it sounds, Coates said he’s simply more focused on the football this season.
“I concentrate more now because last year I wasn't really there and (wide receivers) Coach (Dameyune) Craig came in (and) he got me to start focusing and play my game,” he said. “That's one thing I did. I thank Coach Craig for all he's done this year. He helped get everything under control and me to focus on what I'm supposed to do.”
Of course, one could say that Coates appears to have all areas of his life in order. The gains he’s made — both on and off the field — since the end of last season have taken root. Even so, he knows people are constantly watching him, waiting for signs of the smallest slip-up.
Those people can keep waiting, he said.
The changes he made weren’t of the temporary variety.
They were permanent.
“It’s one thing I take to heart: no matter what you think of me or how you think of me, I’m still going to have my faith and believe no matter what,” he said “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for God.”