AUBURN, Ala. — Trooper Taylor watches spring practice with an optimistic yet skeptical eye.
Auburn’s wide receivers coach likes what he sees, don’t get him wrong, impressed by his group’s work ethic and attitude. But he’s quick not to make any judgments during the team’s non-live periods, when his players can make a catch without fear of a safety sticking his helmet in their facemask.
“When they know they’re protected, the whistle gets blown quick, your arms get a little longer,” Taylor said. “We’ll know more when the bullets are flying and it’s real live football.”
No coach has to take more of an inventory of his players than Taylor, whose group of returning wide receivers had their confidence crushed last season, struggling to grasp Tony Franklin’s spread offense before all but disappearing once the Tigers returned to their more conservative, run-based roots.
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He isn’t dealing with a deep talent pool. Rod Smith, who led the team with 30 catches for 332 yards last year, and Robert Dunn are both gone. So is Chris Slaughter, who showed glimpses of promise before his dotted Auburn career came to and end when he left school for personal reasons shortly after the season.
All that remains are plenty of questions marks and few answers. Of the returning receivers, senior Montez Billings is the only one who caught more than 10 passes last season, with 24 for 277 yards. The remaining returners combined for 23 receptions.
“To be real honest, that’s all B.T.T.,” Taylor said. “I say that’s Before Troop Time. I don’t care anything about any of that. It’s what we have now.”
“It’s a new opportunity for everyone,” sophomore Quindarius Carr said.
While the team waits for reinforcements in August from incoming freshmen DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake, both of whom are expected to compete for playing time immediately, Taylor has focused on fundamentals.
During one drill last week, the receivers lined up side-by-side on a line while Taylor knelt next to the ball, going through a series of gyrations and snap count simulations to get someone to flinch. Only once Taylor actually moved the ball in a snapping motion did the receivers fire off the line, shouting in unison, “No drops!”
“Basically, he wants everyone to be accountable,” wideout Tim Hawthorne said.
The gregarious Taylor has been candid when evaluating his players. He likes what he’s seen physically out of Hawthorne, a 6-foot-3, 214-pound junior who showed some big-play potential last year, catching eight passes for 203 yards, a 25.4-yard average.
Sophomore Darvin Adams and junior Terrell Zachery have had their moments this spring but need to find consistency. They have five career catches between them.
Billings (undisclosed injury) and redshirt freshman Philip Pierre-Louis (ACL) face similar circumstances, limited in what they can do as they recover from injuries. Pierre-Louis, who injured his right knee on the first play of last season, is still in an orange non-contact jersey, falling behind while not being able to participate in most drills.
“It’s not personal, but you can’t make the club in the tub,” Taylor said. “He’ll be watching guys until he can get out there and compete.”
Carr, a 6-foot-1, 181-pound speedster, looks the part of an SEC-caliber receiver but has yet to translate those physical attributes to the field, finishing with just six catches last season.
“I’m really trying to get Q to understand his body, because he is a pretty receiver,” Taylor said. “He looks the part, but I told him right now he’s like a limo without gas. He looks good and I can’t ride him.”
Snappy responses aside, Taylor has started from scratch in his reclamation project, trying to rebuild his receivers’ confidence while not coddling them this spring. He’s made it clear that they are working toward a goal larger than just individual success.
“I’ve got some guys that felt sorry for their self a little bit,” he said after the first day of spring. “(They) need to know the name on the front of their shirt is more important than the name on the back.”