AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn wide receiver coach Kodi Burns had a strange goal for his freshmen as the 2016 season began. He wanted them to play without thinking.
“If you don’t have to think,” Burns said. “You can play like seniors and not freshmen.”
It took a few games, but Auburn’s skilled underclassmen finally started relaxing and settling into college football during Auburn’s 58-7 rout of Louisiana-Monroe.
And while the plays were made against a non-conference team, it was something Auburn coaches and players had been expecting — something that surely will pay off during the second half of Auburn’s SEC schedule.
“I think it’s very important,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Those guys are very talented. It’s just a matter of time when the light goes on and they can start playing and not have to think. The more times they get out there, the better. It was good to see all three of those guys make plays, and I know they will help us later on in the season.”
It all started early in the game with freshman Kyle Davis.
Davis first introduced himself to Auburn fans with a 45-yard one-handed grab against Arkansas State. He made his first career touchdown reception in the first quarter Saturday against ULM. As most of Davis’ receptions, it was a long throw from White (48 yards), giving the Loganville, Ga., native his third catch of 40-plus yards.
From that point it wasn’t so much a question if Auburn’s young players would capitalize on their chances, but when.
Freshman running back Malik Miller answered first. He notched his first score on the ground. Miller carried the ball 9 times for 45 yards and walked it into the end zone from four yards out halfway through the third quarter.
Not to be left out, Nate Craig-Myers caught his first TD pass about six minutes later. With time winding down in the third quarter, Myers reeled in a 39-yard strike from John Franklin III.
Even freshmen who didn’t score found ways to have an impact.
Eli Stove, who impressed Burns throughout the fall with his size and athleticism, pulled in his first career receptions. He dodged between defenders for a career-long 19-yard rush, too and at one point fumbled the ball only to pick it up instantly and hurdle a Warhawks defender.
Still, none of the dynamic moves or plays shocked anyone on the Auburn sideline.
“Those guys are talented. We knew that’s what we were capable of,” sophomore running back Kerryon Johnson said. “It was just nice to see it actually come in a game.”
Johnson said he’d watched this year’s newcomers make plays for months in practice, and it was only a matter or time before they stepped into necessary roles on the field.
“The freshmen are going to do what they’re going to do,” Johnson said. “They just needed to get games underneath their belt, had to get comfortable. Now they’re starting to make plays like we need them to.”
No one knows the drill better than sophomore quarterback Sean White, who has been adjusting to his first year of starts and significant playing time.
“I think that’s just how it is with young players, with freshmen, as they move along, as they get older throughout the season, you know, they start to learn the playbook they start to figure out the college game and adjust to the speed and all of that,” White said.
And while White is no fortune teller, his performances this year exemplify the growth that’s sure to ensue.
“I think they’ll just keep getting better all year long,” White said.