AUBURN, Ala. — Lost in the frustration and disappointment of Auburn football’s Peach Bowl loss to Central Florida was the fact the Tigers reached 3,000 yards passing in a single season for only the fourth time in school history.
In 2018, Auburn will return quarterback Jarrett Stidham and every receiver who finished the season with him. And that gives the Tigers plenty of optimism for the future of their passing attack.
“I feel like we could definitely take another step,” senior receiver Ryan Davis said last month. “I feel like this is just the beginning of Auburn’s passing game.”
Auburn’s returning production in the receiving department will be unprecedented in 2018. Take away the receiving totals from Kyle Davis, Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway, and the Tigers are still set to return 2,863 receiving yards from last season. That’s the most in school history.
Auburn’s second-highest returning production in receiving yards came in 2010, when it brought back 2,608 of its 2,857 receiving yards. Later that year, along with eventual Heisman Trophy quarterback Cam Newton, the Tigers improved to 3,002 passing yards and won a national championship.
All that firepower coming back to Auburn’s passing game at receiver is a good omen for the 2018 season. Over the last decade, Auburn’s two biggest statistical seasons have come when the Tigers returned at least 2,000 receiving yards — 2010 (2,608 to 3,002) and 2014 (2,164 to 2,984).
The Tigers have hit that magic number for improvement, and it has players excited for 2018.
“We had a really good year,” junior receiver Darius Slayton said. “When you’re able to retain so many of those guys and then bring in some new guys, I think that sets you up for success.”
With no players leaving and four incoming freshmen set to join the team in 2018, Auburn could go as many as three-deep across its four main receiving positions.
Davis is back after smashing Auburn’s single-season receptions record with 84 in 2017. He’ll be back to run the slot position, along with potential quick-strike target and fellow senior Will Hastings.
Out wide, Auburn has Slayton, who led the team with an average of 22.17 yards per reception in 2017. Nate Craig-Myers is set for a big 2018 after finishing last season strong, and Eli Stove will return as a versatile starter at flanker.
“Tremendous improvement. We knew that was going to happen with just playing time,” offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said in December. “Those guys are as a group, I think, talented and they’ve really done a nice job of trying to be more physical and tough. … They’ve done a really nice job, and I’m looking for them to continue to improve.”
Down the depth chart, Marquis McClain and Noah Igbinoghene bring a lot of athletic potential into their sophomore seasons.
“It’s very exciting,” Igbinoghene said after the Peach Bowl. “We’ve gotten very close this season, and we’re going to be even closer as the years come. I love all of these guys, and I can’t wait for next year.”
Seth Williams, Matthew Hill, Anthony Schwartz and Shedrick Jackson all will push for playing time as freshmen. They represent the next wave of talent at receiver, and they’re ready to play together and learn from the older targets in Auburn’s room.
“We can’t wait,” Schwartz said last weekend. “We know this is going to be a good class for the next three or four years. Just expect a lot of points on the board.”
With Auburn’s question marks at running back following the departures of Johnson and Pettway to the NFL, the Tigers could benefit from throwing the ball more in 2018, especially early.
Davis hinted at more of an air attack in the upcoming season, even though he said he knows Auburn always will make a strong commitment to the ground game.
“Auburn’s running game is always going to be there — that’s what Auburn does, run the ball,” Davis said. “It’s always going to be a part of the program, but I feel like the passing game definitely took a big, huge leap. I think statistically you can see that as well. I feel like going forward it’s only going to prove more and more.”
Auburn’s single-season passing record is 3,282 yards, which was set mostly by Dameyune Craig in the 1997 season. With Lindsey, Stidham and a huge crop of receivers coming back, that record is in danger of falling in 2018.
It’s an ideal combination of scheme and returning talent coming together at the right time.
“Now we have Coach Lindsey’s offense, and mostly everybody’s coming back from the offensive side of the ball,” Davis said. “All the receivers are coming back. I think you’re going to see a big difference next year.”