War Eagle Extra

He had two knee surgeries, missed most of last season. It’s not stopping Auburn’s Will Hastings

The first practices of a college football team’s fall camp are usually the living embodiment of the cliche “just another practice.” Coaches answer standard questions, let reporters and fans know how excited they are and emulate optimism. Players take part, too.

Standard stuff. Although, once in a while, a player or two pops up who really shouldn’t be in the position he’s in. That’s where Auburn receiver Will Hastings enters the frame.

This is not a knock on Hastings. His stats in 2016 and 2017 tell enough: 26 catches in 2017 and 11 in 2016. He’s back with the program for his senior season, understandably.

But look a bit further.

Hastings started out as a walk-on kicker. He appeared in two games his freshman season, and had a single kickoff against LSU. He eventually moved to receiver, a move that better suits him considering he is one of only two receivers to record 2,000 yards receiving in a single season in high school history in the state of Arkansas.

“He was kind of one of those trick onside (kickers), put him in there against LSU one time, and he kicked it out of bounds. Did it one more time against Mississippi State, didn’t work,” Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama. “Then we had some depth issues in the spring at wide receiver. We put him in there, and it took about a week to figure out he’s pretty good.”

Still. Look deeper.

Hastings tore his ACL in March 2018, returned by September, then suffered more issues with the knee that required more surgery.

One ACL surgery is usually a harsh detriment to players who play skill positions like receiver, which involves exploding off the line of scrimmage, juking out a covering defensive back and cutting on a dime to get open amongst the secondary. Two knee surgeries? That’s usually a major blow.

But there was Hastings on Friday. Plopped down in a seat in the left corner of the auditorium inside Auburn’s Athletics Complex, laughing as he told reporters he doesn’t read their stories anymore — because he did read them his freshman year and, as he put it, “didn’t play so well.”

“God humbled me real quick,” Hastings said.

So yes, on paper, Hastings, a former walk-on kicker who underwent two knee surgeries and missed most of last season (and the spring game), really should not be here. No, he’s not complaining, and neither is his coach. In fact, they’re all understandably thrilled.

“It’s definitely not been easy,” Hastings said. “There were multiple days where I just questioned, ‘why me?’ But, I realized in the long run, you can’t do that to yourself.”

Because, you see, Hastings could actually be set up for an important season.

Hastings is one of two previously-injured receivers the Tigers get back this year, the other being Eli Stove, who also suffered an ACL injury in early 2018. In 2017, the two combined for just over 24% of the Tigers receiving output (790 yards and six total touchdowns).

The Tigers return an experienced offense, aside from quarterback, and the two receivers are at the core. Hastings is one of two senior receivers (the other being Sal Cannella Jr.). Stove enters his junior season. The Tigers return five upperclassmen at receiver, so depth should not be much issue.

“I’m giving everything I can this year,” Hastings said. “I hope my body holds up, and whatever I can do, I can help.”

Malzahn set the bar high when he took the stage in Hoover.

Malzahn said Auburn’s defense this year could be his best since he started coaching on the Plains. He also said that he thinks Hastings could have a chance to play in the NFL.

A former walk-on kicker.

“Will, last year, not having him, it really hurt us,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days. “Will can get open versus anybody covering him in a man-to-man situation. He looks like he’s about 13 years old, too.”

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.