AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn focused on several of its closest 2015 losses over the summer, the four-overtime one to Arkansas stuck out more to its receivers.
The 254 receiving yards Auburn had in the trip to Fayetteville were the third-most against any opponent that season. But the number that stood out above the rest was 7 — the number of drops the receivers had in that 54-46 loss to the Razorbacks.
“We dropped quite a few balls last year,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “You have to execute.”
That call to action from Malzahn rang out to the receivers during Auburn’s offseason. Under first-year receivers coach Kodi Burns, Auburn placed a greater emphasis on catching drills at practice.
“Yeah, Kodi, he pretty much gets on us about that a lot,” senior wide receiver Tony Stevens said. “He really got on it in the spring. He said when he came over here that receivers aren’t going to drop the ball.”
Burns’ high priority on hands has worked well so far in 2016.
One year after a loss in which they dropped 7 passes, Auburn’s receivers have only dropped 10 passes in their first six games of the season. They’ve had one drop in their last two games.
“I think it kind of comes with the job description at wideout: we got to catch the ball, and they’ve done a good job of really focusing on it,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday. “I’d say back in the summer on their own, all fall camp, those guys have been on the jugs machine probably more than we ever have.”
That progress in pass-catching has arrived in spite of a growing youth movement at the position. Stevens and fellow senior Marcus Davis were the only 2016 receivers who caught a pass in the 2015 loss to Arkansas.
Underclassmen Ryan Davis, Kyle Davis, Darius Slayton, Nate Craig-Myers and Eli Stove combined for zero drops in the first half of the season. They’ve outperformed Stevens and Marcus Davis — who have a combined 7 drops — in reliability so far in 2016.
“Our receivers, even though we’ve got a bunch of young, green guys, they’ve done a solid job as far as that’s concerned,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to continue to catch the ball. That’s always something you keep working towards.”
The better catching performances for Auburn have gone hand-in-hand with a surge in production from sophomore quarterback Sean White.
The Tigers signal-caller leads the SEC in completion percentage, quarterback rating and yards per attempt. Auburn receivers are only responsible for dropping the ball on a quarter of his 40 incompletions this season.
“Sean is pretty on target,” Stevens said. “I think that has a lot to do with it also. We just get on a roll, on a hot streak.”
Now the improved Auburn receiving corps will square off with its old nemesis from last year’s drop-heavy defeat — Arkansas, which has more interceptions (7) in 2016 than allowed passing touchdowns (6).
“Arkansas, they do a great job of making you execute,” Lashlee said. “If you’re off just a hair, it’s tough. They did a good job last year … I think both sides know that to a large degree, so I think it’s going to be who plays the best and executes the best, and catching the football is part of that.”
For Stevens, the rematch with Arkansas features extra motivation, especially after his drop two weeks ago in the win over Mississippi State.
On the first drive of the game, Stevens couldn’t hold onto a third-down strike from White, and the ball deflected into the path of a Mississippi State defender for an interception.
After apologizing to White on the sidelines, Stevens made an impressive deep-ball grab over a Bulldog cornerback on the next drive. That set up an Auburn touchdown and the start of what would become a first-half rout in Starkville.
It was a sign that things are different in 2016 for the Auburn receivers when it comes to dropped passes. Now the challenge is to keep it going against the Razorbacks.
“We don’t ever want to drop the ball,” Stevens said. “It’s not motivation, but it can take some part in it.”