AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn receivers coach Dameyune Craig set a goal for his players a year ago: Be the nation’s best group in 2014.
The sixth-ranked Tigers should at least have a more dangerous receiving corps this season with top junior college prospect D’haquille Williams joining speedy deep threat Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis. Expectations are certainly higher going into the opener with Arkansas on Aug. 30.
“I planted a seed in their head,” Craig said. “The one thing I always talk about is how to handle success. These things have been planted in these guys’ heads a long time ago. The accolades that they’re receiving this preseason is something that I foreshadowed for these guys. Even when the season started last year, I said, ‘Once you start having success, how can you handle success?’ ”
It’s been awhile since Auburn receivers have drawn this much preseason buzz. The Tigers haven’t had a receiver picked in the NFL draft since Courtney Taylor was a sixth-rounder in 2007.
The combination of Williams, Coates & Co. with quarterback Nick Marshall’s offseason work on his passing creates more potential matchup headaches for opposing defenses.
The Tigers led the nation in rushing last season behind now-departed Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason but are seeking more balance.
Coates emerged as the go-to receiver last season, finishing third nationally with an average of 21.5 yards on 42 receptions, with 902 yards and seven touchdowns.
Craig, a former Auburn quarterback, said he hasn’t been around an athletic freak like the 6-foot-2, 201-pound Coates.
“I wish I’d had these guys,” he said. “Not taking anything away from the receivers I had, but these guys have special talents. Sammie has a 44-inch vertical, can run a 4.2 40 and benches 400 pounds. That in itself is a weapon. And he’s been willing to work to become a better receiver. He’s really put the work in. It’s a fun group.”
The presence of Williams, if he delivers as expected, will make it harder to double-team Coates.
Rated the nation’s No. 1 JUCO recruit by Rivals.com, Williams had 118 catches for 2,028 yards and 26 touchdowns in two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Craig compared the situation to leaving eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in moving from his job as Florida State’s quarterback coach before last season.
“This time I figured I’d better stick around,” he said. “When you get a player like that, you don’t want to leave. Last one I left won the Heisman Trophy.”
Craig said Williams has lived up to the hype since enrolling in January and didn’t drop a pass in the first couple of weeks of preseason camp.
Louis is most known for the game-winning touchdown catch against Georgia but caught 27 other passes, too. He’s hoping to broaden his legacy.
“That was a big play and all that, it was legendary, but I’m looking forward to the future,” Louis said. “I want my career to be defined by more than just that. It’s going to be a part of it, but I want it to be more than just that.”
Jaylon Denson started the first four games before a season-ending knee injury, and Marcus Davis had a number of timely catches as a freshman.
The players seem to have embraced Craig’s lofty target.
“I think we’ve got the best group in the country,” Coates said. “We’ve got so much talent everywhere, inside, outside, slot, running back. It’s just everywhere. We’ve got so much talent in one room, it’s scary.”