'We've got dogs in that room, and we haven't been able to show it as much.'
Auburn's wide receivers haven't had a single touchdown catch in the first four weeks. But the numbers say they should be a lot more involved in this offense, anyway.
WR Shedrick Jackson (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn football has played four games this season. In those four games, it has scored two passing touchdowns — one from T.J. Finley to tight end John Samuel Shenker against Mercer, and one from Robby Ashford to running back Jarquez Hunter against Penn State.
You might notice that neither of those touchdowns went to wide receivers. In fact, you have to go all the way back to the 2001 season to find the last time Auburn had zero receiving touchdowns from wide receivers in its first four games.
It’s a bizarre statistical quirk, and it came oh-so-close to not being a thing several times. In the season opener, Ja’Varrius Johnson had two long receptions in which he was tackled at the Mercer 2 and the Mercer 7. A week later, he had a 24-yard catch that was marked down at the SJSU 4. Against Missouri, Camden Brown caught his first career pass at the 8-yard line and was tackled at the 3.
But those near-touchdowns for receivers might collectively be a good metaphor for first-year position coach Ike Hilliard’s group as a whole — they’ve had limited chances in Auburn’s struggling offense, and they’ve come frustratingly close to making a bigger mark.
“We've got dogs in that room, and we haven't been able to show it as much,” said Ashford, who was listed Monday as Auburn’s starting quarterback ahead of the LSU game. “But it's coming. … We've got a lot of ballers, and they're just waiting to pop out. I think they will really soon.”
Even with all the problems with Auburn football at the moment and the regression the Tigers have made from last season’s 6-2 start, the wide receivers are one of the only things that has improved from this time a year ago.
After the fourth game last season, Bryan Harsin fired wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams. The Tigers’ wideouts had been plagued by a high number of drops and route-running issues. Harsin promoted Eric Kiesau — now his offensive coordinator — to the position, and the Tigers’ play out wide made a noted improvement from there.
This year, Hilliard is in charge after a long career both playing and coaching wide receiver at the NFL level. Hilliard’s receivers have only been credited with two drops through four games. Auburn has rotated a lot more at the position, with nine different receivers having been targeted multiple times through the first four weeks.
The variety has been noticeable early. On Saturday against Missouri, true freshman Omari Kelly and Camden Brown each got their first career catches. Both of them came in the red zone, and they were on back-to-back plays.
Despite not having a single catch in Week 4, Ja’Varrius Johnson has doubled his receptions per game from 2021 to 2022 and currently sits inside the top 10 in the SEC in yards per catch (17.77). And while Johnson wasn’t a factor in the passing game against Missouri, LSU transfer Koy Moore filled in well. Moore was responsible for more than half of Auburn’s total receiving yards and caught the ball on the Tigers’ three longest plays of the game.
“I liked his attitude in the game — a lot of energy, wanted the ball in his hands,” Harsin said Monday. “Just that mentality was big for us, especially in that game. So we'll keep building on that, because he's a good player. And I think what we saw, we can do some more things to try to get him in the mix. We had a couple young players — Omari got the ball in his hands. Camden got the ball in his hands — we had a few things at the wide receiver position that were good.
“We need to do more of that and use those guys.”