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With D'haquille Williams' status uncertain, Auburn looks for more options in passing game

AUBURN, Ala.D'haquille Williams may end up playing on Saturday after all.

Auburn's junior receiver hasn't been ruled out yet, according to Gus Malzahn. Still, the coach said that more than likely, the team will err on the side of caution as Williams works his way back from a right knee injury suffered in the second quarter of last week's game versus Texas A&M.

"I'm not ready to say that," the coach replied during his weekly press conference Tuesday when asked about Williams' availability, "but it's probably unlikely."

At this point, the Tigers are taking it "week-to-week" with their leading receiver, with Malzahn saying they will closely watch "how he progresses." During his time on the Tiger Talk radio program Monday night, Malzahn admitted "the air was out of our offense" for a short time last Saturday, as they were trying to deal with seeing one of their biggest playmakers go down.

"They were a little bit in shock," he said. "They put that behind them, they moved on, and we had some other guys step up."

Two of those were Melvin Ray and C.J. Uzomah. Each filled in at Williams' spot once he left last week's game. Ray had one reception for 18 yards while Uzomah had one catch for 12 yards. The numbers aren't stunning, no.

But Malzahn believed the duo "performed fairly well" regardless.

"Especially given the circumstances of not getting a lot of practice reps during the week," he added.

Looking back at film, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee thought the offense did well despite the loss of Williams.

"We didn't have him for three quarters of the game (Saturday) night and we were still able to be effective running and throwing the ball. It’s a big loss, but it’s like every other position — somebody has to step up," Lashlee said. "I thought (Saturday) night that Ricardo (Louis) stepped up and made some plays for us. I thought Melvin Ray stepped up. C.J. stepped up. That’s just what good teams have to do. Guys have to step up and fill those voids.”

Another player in line for more playing time if Williams can't play is sophomore Tony Stevens. Though he has just one reception for 22 yards this season, his 6-foot-4, 198-pound frame gives quarterback Nick Marshall a big target.

The player who shined the most with Williams sidelined was Quan Bray. The senior tied a single-game career-high with six receptions, finishing with 65 yards and a touchdown. His performance didn't surprise Lashlee.

In his eyes, Bray has emerged into the Tigers' third-best receiver behind Williams and Sammie Coates.

"He's a senior, he's a veteran guy and he's great with the ball after he catches it. That's a huge strength of his," Lashlee said. "That's why he's such a good punt returner. So it's been really good to have him come on and be another weapon for us."

Malzahn has been equally impressed with Bray's play this fall.

"Every year he’s been here he’s developed more and more as a wide receiver and I think everybody sees now he’s starting to make plays down the field and running very good routes," Malzahn said. "(He's) strong with the ball. He’s really doing some things at the receiver position that (are) really helping us."

Most importantly, Lashlee believes the passing game has started to find its rhythm.

To wit: In the first four games of the season, Marshall only had one 200-plus yard passing effort; in the past five games, he's reached that plateau four times. He's thrown eight interceptions against three interceptions (two coming in the loss to Mississippi State). And in the last three outings, Marshall's completion percentage has skyrocketed. After a woeful 48.6 percent (17-for-35) showing versus the Bulldogs, he's connected on 73.7 percent (42-for-57) of his attempts in the last three games.

It's the type of production Lashlee has been waiting to see since spring practice.

"We're making plays down the field. We're getting there," he said. "Our guys are making strides, and our guys are starting to show some signs of what we expected. But we (have) still got some room to improve. There's still some things out there."

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