AUBURN, Ala. — Will Hastings says this season with Auburn football will be different for him.
Before fall camp ended, he already had one major change — a scholarship. The kicker-turned-slot receiver was one of six Auburn walk-ons to earn a scholarship this week. It was the latest step in an unusual journey for Hastings, who came to the Plains as a highly productive small-school wideout from Little Rock, Ark.
“Everybody back home, a lot of people said, ‘You’re really dumb for going here,’ ” Hastings said. “Nobody gave me a chance. Then [Auburn wide receivers coach Kodi] Burns came in, and he gave me a chance. Like I said before, he really believed in me more than I believed in myself. He really helped me out and got me to where I am. It’s definitely been a crazy ride.”
Burns plugged Hastings into Auburn’s rotation at slot receiver early last fall. He had multiple catches in his first three games, including his first career touchdown against Arkansas State in Week 2.
But Hastings faded quickly after that for the Tigers. He had a catch for negative yardage against Louisiana-Monroe in Week 5 and didn’t have another reception until the regular-season finale against Alabama. Hastings went seven of eight games without a catch, and he didn’t even play in two of those contests.
“They needed bigger guys, and I completely understood,” Hastings said. “I just wanted to help when I could.”
Still, Hastings said the drop out of the rotation was frustrating. A cult hero among Auburn fans for a few games became an afterthought in the offense.
This offseason, Hastings said he focused on putting that disappointment behind him.
“Obviously, I didn’t play like I wanted to the rest of that season,” Hastings said. “After the season, I talked to my family and I was like, ‘Look, I’m never letting that happen again.’ I got it out of my system quick and I’m never letting it come back in, so I’m not worried about it at all.”
Hastings bounced back quickly. In spring practices, he became a popular target in the slot for new quarterback Jarrett Stidham. He led all receivers with 7 catches and recorded 75 yards.
During fall camp, Hastings has been in competition with junior Ryan Davis at Auburn’s “3” or traditional slot receiver. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said he’s seen an improvement in Hastings’ game after his long slide after last September.
“I think Will has had a very good fall camp,” Malzahn said Saturday. “Of course, he’s one of the guys we put on scholarship, and I know he’s excited about that. He’s done a good job. He’s gotten better.”
The junior’s key attribute is his quickness, which makes him a tougher-than-expected matchup out of the slot. Hastings posted some of the Tigers’ best times in agility shuttles and sprints during the summer.
At 5-foot-10 and 167 pounds, he won’t break many tackles. However, Hastings will find a way to get the necessary yardage — 6 of his 11 catches last fall went for first downs.
“He’s a shifty little dude,” sophomore receiver Eli Stove said. “He knows how to get in and out of cuts, he can catch well. He’s a great receiver.”
Hastings has found a role for the Tigers after Malzahn joked about how he was “fired” from his first one. In 2015, he was a trick onside kick specialist. His high school in Arkansas, Pulaski Academy, never punted and always attempted onside kicks.
Hastings was 0-for-2 in that department, but he’s been much more successful at receiver.
“That’s when he’s really blossomed,” Malzahn said. “He’s super quick, he can come in and out of cuts as good as anybody I’ve seen, and he’s showed some toughness. He’s earned the right to be on scholarship and to have a chance to help us.”
In order to do that, Hastings says, he had to shake off the frustrations from 2016. The former kicker says his focus is in a better place, and he believes that will keep him from being just another flash in the pan this fall.
“I think I was definitely overthinking,” Hastings said. “Coach Malzahn says, even Coach Burns says, I need to calm down. It’s just something I’ve got to work on. Calm down, slow the game down, which I think I’ve definitely done. I’m ready to go.”