AUBURN, Ala. — Nate Craig-Myers was never shy about what he hoped to achieve in his first college football season.
During ESPN’s National Signing Day coverage last February, Myers sat in a crowd of family and friends and announced his decision to attend Auburn. Seconds later, wearing a blue and orange baseball cap, he listed some of his goals.
Myers wanted to be named an All-American at the end of his first year. Eventually, he aspired to win the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s best receiver.
Yet over the next 335 days the spotlight eluded Myers.
Instead of leading the way for the Tigers’ offense, he dealt with a string of nagging injuries. When his half-brother and teammate Jayvaughn Myers suffered a season-ending injury in early October, Craig-Myers found strength to push through his own minor issues, but was never the impact player he’d sought to be.
As spring ball nears, familiar circumstances are driving Craig-Myers.
He’s out to prove his sky-high recruiting ranking was correct (he was a top-10 prospect by most national recruiting databases). More importantly, he intends to help his brother make a strong return to the field. If history’s any indication, those two motives could prime the sophomore for a big 2017 season on the Plains.
The learning curve
Everything was going according to plan in August.
Wide receiver coach Kodi Burns spoke about Nate’s preparation and eagerness to learn. From what they’d seen during workouts, teammates believed Craig-Myers immediately would contribute. Everyone noticed when Nate and Jayvaughn matched up against each other.
Following a strong showing in preseason camp, the Dade City, Fla., native, was backing up senior Tony Stevens — one of the offense’s few veterans — as Auburn’s home opener against Clemson neared.
“I felt like it was a learning process,” Craig-Myers said. “Just being behind a senior and just being able to learn from him. That helped and taught me a lot.”
But through his first four games Craig-Myers made one just grab in Auburn’s blowout win over Arkansas State in Week 2.
Fans and media were confused. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee had been vocal about newcomers having a chance to participate. But as Auburn’s offense sputtered through the first few games, many wondered why the No. 2 receiver in ESPN’s recruiting rankings wasn’t being targeted more.
What most didn’t realize: Craig-Myers was never 100 percent healthy.
“It wasn’t one thing in particular,” said former Auburn receiver Jeris McIntyre, Myers’ high school coach. “He had some nicks and bruises and they all came at different times in the season. Once he got completely healthy something else would happen, so it was difficult.”
Despite dealing with frustrating injuries, Craig-Myers showed potential. He snagged his first touchdown pass — a 39-yard bomb from backup quarterback John Franklin III — during the Tigers’ 58-7 homecoming victory over Louisiana-Monroe.
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“Being a freshman he wanted to go out and show everyone what he could really do,” McIntyre said. “But that was promising to know that he could do that even though he wasn’t 100 percent.
Less than a week later, Myers suffered a torn ACL during practice and had surgery a few days later. Though the injury didn’t directly affect Craig-Myers, it changed his mindset.
‘Doing it for him’
The half-brothers typically were quiet about their relationship, but those closest to them knew how important family was.
Craig-Myers had watched as Myers went through his own recruitment. The 6-foot-1 defensive back was a late bloomer, but had a breakout spring game entering his senior year.
“Jayvaughn is small, he’s athletic, he can run,” McIntyre said. “He’s a player himself. Not a lot of people knew about him, but he had a big spring and started playing 7-on-7. Nate put in a good word with a lot of the coaches who were recruiting him, too.”
After some back and forth, the duo decided they wanted to attend school together. When Jayvaughn’s season was ended, Nate found a new sense of purpose.
“Every day I just went out there and practiced for him because I knew it hurt him that he couldn’t be out there,” Craig-Myers said. “Every snap I took I just went out there and had the mindset that I was doing it for him.”
Craig-Myers knew too well what his brother was going through.
Before his junior year of high school he’d transferred to Tampa Catholic to play for coach Mike Gregory. But minutes into the first quarter of his first game as a Crusader, tragedy struck. He broke his fibula and missed the remainder of the season.
“Nate is the kind of kid who just wants to play,” Gregory said. “Being off the field for nine months really, before he could do any kind of rehab, you could tell it kind of tore him up a little bit. He didn’t let it affect him too much. He was around his teammates all the time. He was still quintessential during that time period, and just a good guy to have around the locker room. His senior year he had an outstanding year. He played really well. You could tell he was trying to make up for lost time.”
As a senior, Craig-Myers totaled 1,018 receiving yards and scored 16 touchdowns. He was named an Under-Armour All-American.
“Nate is the kind of kid that when he sees a setback he’s going to fight to make up for it,” Gregory said. “To make up for lost time and overcome it. He’s seen adversity before.”
After Myers got hurt, it became important for Craig-Myers to demonstrate injuries wouldn’t limit the brothers at the college level, either.
“Jayvaughn has somebody in Nate who’s been through this before and can help him along and say, ‘Hey, don’t let this define you. Don’t let this bring you down. Find a way to overcome it.'”
Craig-Myers made it through the year, but finished with 4 catches and one score (70 yards), leaving him with plenty of incentive to shine as a sophomore.
Even with all the ups and downs, Nate reflected positively on his first year after Auburn’s Sugar Bowl appearance in January and remained optimistic about his brother’s status.
“I felt like this season was pretty good,” Craig-Myers said. “We had a lot of young guys on our team and we’re coming back with young guys who have a year under their belt, more experience. I feel like we’ll definitely have a great year next year. I just feel like with my brother he’ll be able to come back off the ACL and he’ll definitely be able to get back into the rotation.”
After the arrival of former Baylor quarterback Jarrett Stidham, thinking ahead to the spring excited Craig-Myers.
“That’s definitely going to be a great competition,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who have different skills and whoever wins at quarterback we’ll be 100 percent behind.”
And just like they have in the past, Nate and Jayvaughn will continue to support each other and cherish their time together. McIntyre expects their bond — as it did before — to bring out the best in both of them.
“They’re really tight knit. They’re both quiet kids, but when they get around each other they’re really funny,” McIntyre said. “A lot of brothers can’t be with each other and play Division I football at a school like Auburn, so I think they’ll continue to work and be successful.”