AUBURN, Ala. — Among Auburn's receivers, Marcus Davis, Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker occupy what could be considered as the middle ground.
They're not Sammie Coates or Ricardo Louis, the Tigers' top two pass-catchers in terms of receptions and receiving yards last year. They're not D'haquille Williams or Stanton Truitt, either, the fresh-faced duo that have earned rave reviews from both teammates and coaches this spring in their first semester on the Plains.
Settling in between that quartet — in both experience and production — are Davis, Stevens and Walker. The three arrived last fall, members of the Tigers' first recruiting class under coach Gus Malzahn.
Each had varying levels of success in 2013.
Davis had the best year statistically, reeling in 23 receptions for 217 yards, with both marks good for third-best on the team. Stevens, hobbled by a lingering hamstring injury for much of the season, had five catches for 68 yards and a touchdown. Walker never made it on the field, as he took a redshirt last year.
Now well-versed in the Tigers' hurry-up, no-huddle scheme, personal expectations have risen.
"I know what to expect going into a game and I know how a defense plays, so I just expect to play faster," Davis said.
If he does that, Malzahn believes the ball will head into Davis' direction often next season.
"Marcus is a guy that I know our quarterbacks have a lot of confidence in," the coach said. "He's a very crisp route runner. He knows how to get open, and he's got that natural knack. He can make a big play like he showed last year."
His flair for making clutch catches shined through in two tight victories last season: Mississippi State and Texas A&M.
Against the Bulldogs, Davis was Nick Marshall's favorite target on the final drive. He caught four passes for 38 yards as the Tigers' drove 88 yards to score the go-ahead touchdown and pull out a 24-20 win. Versus the Aggies, Davis came through once more. Down 41-38 and facing a third-and-9 with just 1:55 remaining, Marshall hit Davis on a 27-yard completion to take it down to Texas A&M's 12-yard line. Tre Mason would go on to punch the ball in from the 5-yard line, the final score in Auburn's 45-41 road triumph.
Malzahn expects more of the same this fall.
"I can tell our quarterbacks, they have that comfort with him," he said. "He's a guy that's going to be a big factor in our pass game moving forward."
Thanks to Marshall's improvement, Davis doesn't think he'll be the only one to benefit, though.
"I think we can open it up a little bit more now that Nick is more comfortable and the receivers all know what to do," he said.
But Rhett Lashlee was quick to single out Davis for his steadiness last season, a trait rarely seen from a first-year player.
"He acts like he's been here for seven years," Auburn's offensive coordinator said. "He comes to work every day, practices like a pro. He practices hard and he makes plays."
At the other end of the spectrum is Walker, still seeking his first catch as a Tiger. He hasn't spoken with reporters since the spring began, but Stevens was more than willing to talk for him. After all, they were teammates at Maynard High School in Orlando, Fla., before they came to Auburn."He's learning the playbook day by day," Stevens said. "I think he really pays more attention now than last year, because I think he probably knew he wasn't going to play. ... But he could really use (the reps)."
It appears to be working, as Lashlee noted the redshirt year "really helped" Walker, comparing it to similar gains he's seen from running back Peyton Barber. Still, Lashlee's praise came with a cavaet; he feels Walker's biggest problem this fall is something out of the receiver's control.
"We've got some really good players in front of him, so I don't know what that means for him this year," Lashlee said. "You can tell that this spring it's been good because he's gotten a lot of reps and he's gotten more reps already this spring in 11 practices than he got all last summer and fall. ... What we see is things have slowed down for him — and they should. If they didn't at this point, then you'd start to wonder."
There are no such worries about Stevens, who has been a bright spot on offense this spring. In the Tigers' second scrimmage, he hauled in a touchdown pass from Tucker Tuberville. He scored on the type of route that was once his bread and butter: the fade.
"That's the same thing I did in high school," said Stevens, who at 6-foot-4 is the tallest receiver on Auburn's roster. "Just give me the chance, give me the ball, and I'll go up there and get it."
Rest assured, the Tigers are going to do their best to let him do just that this fall.
"We feel like that can be a strength," Lashlee said. "We've got big-bodies who either have the ability to separate or even when they're covered, make plays. As a quarterback, man, that's what you like. That makes your job easier."