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Up for grabs: Auburn’s wide receivers bunched up on depth chart

Auburn wide receiver Tony Stevens, No. 8, fights to get off the line against Jamel Dean at spring practice on Tuesday, March 22, 2016.
Auburn wide receiver Tony Stevens, No. 8, fights to get off the line against Jamel Dean at spring practice on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Ledger-Enquirer.com

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee explained what the coaching staff is looking for at the team’s skill positions last week when he met with the media for the first time this spring.

“We’re looking for playmakers,” Lashlee said. “We’re looking for guys who want to step up when everything is on the line.”

The Tigers’ offense stalled in those situations last season in one-possession losses to Mississippi State, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Georgia. Those final scores could have easily been in Auburn’s favor had someone made one or two plays.

Auburn’s coaching staff wants receivers at the top of the depth chart who fit the criteria Lashlee laid out, but the process of indentifying those players this spring hasn’t been a quick one.

“They are all competing,” Lashlee said. “You could throw them all in a hat right now, shake them up, and pull one out for all I care.”

Lashlee hoped Saturday’s scrimmage would create some separation in the group. Coach Gus Malzahn met with the media following the practice, but stayed away from declaring any individual winners without watching the film.

“They all got opportunities,” Malzahn said. “A couple of guys made some catches down the field.”

According to Malzahn, the quarterbacks overthrew a couple of opportunities down the field. Running back Roc Thomas caught the only passing touchdown during the scrimmage on a throw out of the backfield from Jeremy Johnson.

The group of receivers competing for playing time is a long one and there’s more talent on the way with incoming freshman Nate Craig-Myers, Marquis McClain and Eli Stove joining the team in the fall.

Auburn needs to replace both of last year’s starters Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray, who were responsible for more than a third of the team’s receptions (66 catches) and 40 percent of the team’s passing yardage (995 yards).

Seniors Tony Stevens and Marcus Davis are the veteran returning receivers.

Stevens matched his career total of six receptions during week nine last year. He caught 14 passes for 177 yards with one touchdown. His playing time increased after Duke Williams was dismissed from the team in October. Stevens caught at least one pass in Auburn’s final eight games.

The Florida native is the tallest target on the team at 6-foot-4. Stevens is hoping his experience and size help him land a starting spot.

“You never know when you’re time is going to come,” Stevens said. “Every time in practice I always practice like I’m getting ready to play. Up to this moment right now, I feel like I’m ready. Since last year, like the perfect moment, like Kentucky—my first game out there—I was ready because I was prepared for it. Now I’m preparing for Clemson.”

Younger players hoping to grab the coaching staff’s attention include early enrollee Kyle Davis and redshirt freshman Darius Slayton.

Davis is recovering from offseason shoulder and has worn a non-contact orange jersey through Auburn’s eight spring practices.

Sitting out hasn’t prevented the highly touted receiver out of Archer High School in Georgia from showing he belongs in the mix. Coaches are also taking a look at Davis as one of the team’s punt returners.

“Physically, what we call on the hoof, he looks the part,” Lashlee said of the 6-foot-2, 208-pounder. “He looks good in pads. He’s running routes and catching balls. He’s limited in what he can do. We won’t really know that until the fall, but from what we’ve seen so far we feel pretty good about his chances to compete for a spot come fall camp.”

Slayton, who was Auburn’s highest rated wide receiver prospect from the class of 2015, is someone new graduate assistant Jonathan Wallace talked about being a playmaker-type at the end of last season.

“He’s going to be a really good receiver in the coming years,” Wallace said in December.

The former state champion sprinter is making strides this spring to get back on the field after redshirting last season.

“Darius has gotten better,” Malzahn said. “He's got better each practice. This spring has been very good for him because he knows he has a real chance to compete for playing time. He's done a good job. I think he had a solid day today. He made some plays down the field. He's a guy we're expecting to help.”

The player Slayton goes up against the most in practice is also impressed with his talent.

“He’s a great receiver,” defensive back Jamel Dean said. “Me and him both compete against each other, getting each other better.”

Auburn hasn’t ruled out going into fall camp with a depth chart in hand, but the coaching staff isn’t going to rush any decisions if players don’t establish themselves as clear-cut starters.

“It’s kind of like we were two or three years ago,” Lashlee said. “The refreshing part of it is that everything is fairly up for grabs. We don’t have a lot of solidified guys coming back, but we have some guys that we think have a chance to really be good players. Of course, we are learning a lot the first seven days, Saturday is still going to be our biggest evaluation. We’d love to come out of spring having a lot of things answers. Who knows whether we will or not.”