There was a time when a scrawny Eli Stove sat patiently at the end of the bench.
As a second grader, Stove pleaded with his father Langston to play football like his older brothers Jonathan and Zachary at a time when he wasn’t quite physically ready to matchup with kids his age.
“He wasn’t like he is now, but he begged and begged so I gave in,” Langston Stove said. “He was always one of the last players to go in.”
Langston laughs at the memory considering his son spent the weeks leading up to national signing day fielding calls from some of the country’s top programs.
Never miss a local story.
While Eli Stove verbally committed to Auburn last year at the end of May, it didn’t stop power five teams from heavily pursuing the wide receiver.
“Towards the end it felt like someone was always calling,” Langston Stove said. “It got a little rough. Florida was trying really hard and Miami even came in at the end.”
Eli stuck to his pledge to join one of top 2016 receiving classes in the country along with Archer’s Kyle Davis and Tampa Catholic’s Nate Craig-Myers.
Competing with a pair of top-10 receiving prospects might seem like a daunting task, but Stove doesn’t plan on returning to his days of being a benchwarmer.
“Those days disappeared quickly,” Langston Stove said with a chuckle.
Speeding towards success
Agile, quick, fluid, smooth and just plain old fast are words coaches use to describe Eli Stove. It was how the 6-foot-1, 178-pounder started to turn heads growing up in Kansas.
“I put him in AAU U.S. track and field in fourth grade, he competed in the junior Olympics as a sprinter,” Langston Stove said. “We pulled back on the track a little bit, but his speed is what got him on the field when he started out.”
As an 11-year old at the Ozark AAU National Qualifier, Eli Stove won the 100-meter finals (13.31) for Team Wichita Track, finished third in the 200-meter finals (27.09) and second in the 400-meter finals (1:00.53).
When his father’s time with the Air Force ended, the family moved to Florida where the coaches at Niceville High School immediately recognized Stove as a future playmaker.
“We worked to get him stronger, but he had that great speed and quickness,” Niceville coach John Hicks said. “Work ethic was never a question with him either.”
Stove suffered a setback as a freshman with a broken collarbone, but started as a sophomore for an Eagles team that made it to the 7A finals with a 13-2 record.
Stove made a name for himself during Niceville’s postseason run that year. In five playoff games, Stove caught 17 passes for 212 yards with a touchdown. He had his first 100-yard receiving game of his career in a 31-30 semifinals win over Osceola.
“He kind of carried us,” Niceville assistant coach Adron Robinson said. “He made some huge plays against Osceola and did it again in the state finals.”
Stove put up strong numbers through the rest of his high school career finishing fourth in Niceville’s record books in career receiving yards (1878 yards), career touchdown receptions (22) and total touchdowns (31).
“He caught balls all over the field,” Robinson said. “He wasn’t just an end zone guy. He ended up with great stats, more than 3,000 total yards and that was with having to go to the bench by halftime most games as a junior when we had a (big) lead.”
A welcome competition
Stove’s talent and production had suitors lining up to recruit him.
Auburn offered him a scholarship along with power five schools including Miami, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee.
What made Auburn stand out from the list of heavy hitters?
According to Langston Stove, his son was looking to find a similar situation to the one he landed in at Niceville where the coaches and players welcomed him with open arms.
“They didn’t see him as a kid looking to take someone’s spot,” Langston Stove said. “They had great leadership when he moved here as a freshman. The sophomores and juniors took care of him and I think that really helped him out.”
Dameyune Craig was Stove’s primary recruiter at Auburn, but the Tigers made a point of having the receiver get to know the entire coaching staff and his potential future teammates.
“Everyone knew him up there,” Langston Stove said. “It wasn’t just coach Craig. He talked to all of the coaches and they got to know our entire family. They even remembered the names of his brothers.”
Auburn’s focused efforts made Eli’s decision an easy one.
“He wanted to find an environment he was comfortable with,” Hicks said. “He looked for similar players. He wanted to go somewhere where everyone wasn’t worried about ego.”
Stove even picked Auburn without the promise of early playing time. Other schools made it part of their recruiting pitch, but the guarantees didn’t mean much to Stove who is ready and willing to work for a spot in the rotation.
“Coach Craig wasn’t just telling Eli what he wanted to hear,” Robinson said. “If Eli was ready to work then he would get a shot and that was fine with Eli. He’s already used to competition. He played with Tyre McCants, but didn’t settle for being second fiddle. He’s used to it. He’s not going to back down.”
McCants just finished up his redshirt freshman year at USF.
Stove received a vote of confidence from the most important voice in Auburn’s locker room on national signing day with coach Gus Malzahn identifying the senior as his main pick for a potential breakout candidate for the fall.
“Eli Stove is a top 100 recruit, but he gets a little bit overlooked with the other guys,” Malzahn said. “But he’s a phenomenal player. We think he’s going to have a chance to make an impact and we think he’ll make an impact early.”