AUBURN --- Bo Nix can’t wait to have all his weapons around him.
So far, when he’s looked to his left and to his right in the calm before each snap this season, he’s only seen revolving pieces, replacing the ghosts of missing links.
Auburn’s played a bit of ‘musical chairs’ at receiver so far this year, head coach Gus Malzahn has said, after early season injuries to standouts Anthony Schwartz and Seth Williams have forced some players to play multiple positions and fill in those gaps — but as they heal, those cross-trained Tigers at receiver have confidently reloaded the arsenal around their freshman quarterback.
They might need all the firepower they can muster in Saturday’s SEC opener at Texas A&M.
Inside receivers have played outside, tight ends have split out wide and Auburn’s turned to new faces in different spaces as the effects of limitations on the team’s two most productive returners from 2018 have trickled down the depth chart — but Auburn’s trained for this, players insist, starting in the offseason when different receivers took their time to work with Nix, and continuing this fall through the drilling of wide receivers coach Kodi Burns.
“Coach Burns gets us real ready to play any positions,” Auburn’s veteran receiver Will Hastings said Tuesday.
He and fellow veteran Eli Stove have emerged as Nix’s top targets early in the season. Schwartz has suited up with protective wrapping over his left hand ever since preseason surgery. Williams injured his shoulder against Tulane and missed the Kent State game.
Stove has caught 16 passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns, and Hastings has caught seven passes for 124 yards and a score, re-joining the Tigers’ attack after missing most of last season after both went through ACL surgeries in the spring of 2018.
Senior Sal Cannella has caught four passes for 79 yards, and graduate transfer Jay Jay Wilson emerged as a target in last Saturday’s game against Kent State.
With some flexibility and some creativity, Auburn’s off to a 3-0 start going into conference play.
“Especially the veteran guys, you’ve got to understand the concepts of running receiver. He can move anyone around,” Hastings said of his coach, Burns.
“We all know what we’re going to do and we know our positions. So it was nothing new. We just had to get prepared for it.”
Those shifts in pieces can reach beyond just one second-teamer moving up a depth chart.
“When you lose a guy like Seth Williams, it doesn’t just change one position. It changes a lot of different of things,” Malzahn explained after the Kent State game.
“There’s a lot of moving around, but I think we all know what’s going on in a game — all the positions,” Stove said after that win. “They train us really well to know everything.”
This is where that training comes in — and those hours of running routes in the hot summer sun putting extra work in with Nix to develop that quarterback-to-receiver timing.
“All the receivers that are in the game, I have a nice comfort level with, so it’s not too bad,” Nix said. “And then in practice we just make sure to go over the plays that we’re going to run in the game.
“We try to be flexible with them so they can move around and do certain things, but as a receiver in this offense, there’s a lot to learn so it is tough to learn multiple positions, but the guys do it really well,” he added.
It’s a good thing, because Auburn has no choice but to lean on those receivers stretching their availability and filling in the gaps for two top playmakers for as long as they’re limited.
Williams has been called ‘day-to-day’ by Malzahn this week. Schwartz has suited up for every game and even caught a pass against Kent State with the protective wrapping over one of his hands. The Tigers hope he’ll be able to play with less intrusive protection this week, though he will play.
The sooner they’re both back, the better — for Auburn, and for its freshman quarterback running to the wolves in SEC play this week unsure of how much two of his top targets will be able to help him.
“It’ll mean a lot to us, because they’re so dynamic, and we can start really opening things up,” Nix said of Williams and Schwartz ultimately returning to full speed.
“I think we’ve seen glimpses of both of them so far this season, but to have them both healthy, I’m really excited and as an offense we’re all excited to have all our pieces to the puzzle back.”