Meet the new(er) receivers who could help 'change the narrative' for Auburn's offense this fall
Ike Hilliard inherited some returning experience on the Plains. But more than half of the room is made up of newcomers or second-year guys. Here's what we've learned about them.
WR Koy Moore (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
There’s two things you need to know about new Auburn wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard.
No. 1: He believes in himself.
“I still like me against anybody at 46 years old,” Hilliard said Wednesday afternoon. “I do. And I can't run to save my life. I can't run faster than my daughters. But I will always bet on myself.”
No. 2: He believes in the young receivers he now coaches on the Plains.
“The idea is just to change the narrative in the room,” Hilliard said. “And those kids, their games are plenty good enough. And if they don't believe that, shame on them. I can't want it more than they do. We have to find a way to make sure that, on a daily basis, that they believe that.”
Hilliard definitely knows what it takes to be a successful wide receiver. He was an All-American wideout at Florida who became the No. 7 pick in the 1997 NFL Draft. He played 12 seasons in the league — an impressive career, considering the average length of time most skill players spend in the NFL — before spending 11 years coaching at that level.
Hilliard made it at the highest levels of the sport as a player. He then helped train the next generation for more than a decade. He name-dropped former NFL pupils such as Pro Bowl pick Diontae Johnson, Super Bowl champion Robert Woods and All-Rookie selection Terry McLaurin — who just signed a contract extension this offseason that included the biggest signing bonus ever given to a wide receiver.
Hilliard talks about “changing the narrative” among the wide receivers at Auburn, a place where the all-time leader in the record books played more than 50 years ago. It’s a program that has just one receiver who gets regular snaps in the NFL (Darius Slayton) and only two others who have been drafted in recent seasons (Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams).
In his first fall on the Plains, Hilliard has a dozen scholarship wide receivers at his disposal. Five of them have been on campus for at least two years: Shedrick Jackson, Ja’Varrius Johnson, Malcolm Johnson Jr., Ze’Vian Capers and J.J. Evans.
“Shed’s mature. Malcolm’s mature… Var is extremely talented,” Hilliard said. “Those dudes, they've been around the system. They understand, you know, as from last year with this, what this is supposed to look like, so they're in a different place than the young men.”
But more than half of Hilliard’s room is made up of newcomers to Auburn or players who have just spent one year with the program. In order for the Tigers to get to where they want to be as a passing attack, several of those newer faces will have to step up.
“All of those kids have done extremely well,” Hilliard said. “Honestly. I don't want to single out anybody or tell the world to watch out, ‘This one's coming, that one's coming.’ I think the idea that needs to be adopted here is that they need to change the narrative from what happened last year and years before, and you know, we're gonna take it one snap at a time.
“We have to get open. We have to catch the ball. Overall, we have to play better.”
Fortunately for Hilliard, some of his young receivers have been the talk of fall camp, which wrapped up its first full week Wednesday. There have been some highs and some lows — like a Tuesday practice marked by too many drops out wide — but Hilliard and others inside the program sound confident.
As the Tigers look ahead to their first scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday night, let’s take a closer look at those seven younger receivers and what we’ve learned about them so far in the preseason.