AUBURN, Ala. — Will Hastings always made a mental note when people didn’t believe in him. Sometimes he even made literal notes.
After Hastings’ senior season at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas, a friend said Hastings never would be a wide receiver in the SEC. The 5-foot-8 Hastings was too small, the friend surmised.
On that night a few years ago, Hastings went home, grabbed his phone and pulled up a note. He wrote the date and time that his friend doubted him. He typed in his exact words.
He’s glanced at the note during the last two years, as the walk-on-kicker-turned-receiver has been doing the impossible at Auburn.
“Will’s always liked to be a part of something bigger,” high school teammate Zack Kelley said. “Not necessarily a big part of something big, but if he could contribute a little bit, that’s what he wanted this whole time. He went to Auburn with high expectations just thinking, ‘If I get one shot, I have to make something happen.’ And he did.”
The undersized wideout is impacting the Tigers in a big way. Perhaps even the doubters should have seen it coming. Besides, Hastings is one of two receivers in Arkansas high school history to eclipse 2,000 receiving yards in a season.
“It’s starting to set in,” Hastings said. “I never really thought it’d come true, but it definitely has come true.”
The sophomore converted Auburn’s initial first down of the 2016 season against No. 2 Clemson last Saturday. He followed that with 3 more catches (29 yards). All 3 receptions occurred on third or fourth downs and resulted in first downs.
Hastings has been tested on his journey to Jordan-Hare Stadium, but his football success is just beginning.
His athletic success began well before he stepped onto a football field.
In his first soccer match, a 4-year-old Hastings scored 2 goals: one for his team and another for the opponent. He kept improving (eventually learning which goals to shoot at) and strengthening his skill set.
“It became pretty clear pretty quickly that he was an exceptional little player,” said Jerry Howard, Hastings’ club soccer coach. “He was just really quick and so fast, but he still had such good control of the ball on his first touch off the ball at full speed. He’d make a move and the other guy was dead meat because he just couldn’t catch Will.”
Hastings developed into a standout. In 2009, Hastings was the only child from Arkansas chosen for an Olympic development team. Soccer also made Hastings more resilient.
“He’s a tough guy. He may not appear like that or go around like that, but (he) would be just flying down the field in soccer and some of the teams we played would just lay him out,” Howard said. “He would go out there and get the snot knocked out of him, without any pads on, and he would get up, shake it off and come out for a minute. He’d get a drink and get right back in there. He took the brunt of a lot of defenses because they knew he was the best player on the team.”
His soccer experience proved valuable when friends convinced Hastings to join the football team in eighth grade. Pulaski coach Kevin Kelley noticed his footwork immediately but soon learned Hastings could shine at another spot.
In one of his first practices, Hastings was supposed to block in a drill. As he saw the ball approaching, Hastings intercepted the pass and scored a touchdown. His first catch was not even intended for him.
Teammates and coaches gave him a hard time. As Hastings steadily improved, it became clear the team needed him on the field.
Anthony Lucas immediately saw Hastings was special when he arrived at Pulaski to coach wide receivers in August 2012.
“He made a move and I started calling him Diddy because he shakes people up,” Lucas said. “If he catches a ball, he’s going to make the first guy miss regardless. He’s just that talented.”
Hastings’ skills became more complex, but the approach remained basic.
Though, at times, he appeared nervous or scared to teammates, Hastings never got caught up in the hype of playing in state title games or his record-breaking individual performances during his final year at the Little Rock school.
“He just keeps it so simple that the big stage doesn’t bother him,” Kevin Kelley said. “When he’s on the field, leading up to it, maybe he’s one of those guys who are so afraid to fail that he’s not going to.”
Hastings’ presence on the field reassured teammates like Will Hefley, Hastings’ high school quarterback who now plays for the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
“Will helped (my mindset) a ton. I knew that if (we) called a stop and go to Will, I could throw it near him and he was going to beat the corner and go get the ball,” Hefley said.
After his senior season, Hastings decided to forgo Division II scholarship opportunities, instead trying to walk on at Auburn. He spent the rest of the year drinking protein shakes and working out harder than before.
Again, Hastings immediately attracted attention, causing a stir at an Auburn summer camp by breaking several agility-drill records.
Hastings didn’t see many opportunities at wide receiver during his freshman season. His confidence faded, and he became homesick. He kept in touch with Lucas, friends and family. And Hastings kept working.
“Will is so passionate about doing his best at whatever he’s trying to do,” said his mom, Kim Hastings. “(He) doesn’t want to let anyone down. He wants to do everything right.”
When Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hired Kodi Burns as the Auburn wide receivers coach in February, Hastings finally got his chance. He impressed during the offseason, working his way into the lineup and rotation. He was a surprise to some when he was listed on the depth chart heading into the season opener last week.
Then, Hastings did what he does.
“Will’s got some natural abilities,” Malzahn said. “He had some big third-down catches, a fourth-down catch. He’s got some natural things to him. For a new guy, you worry if the moment is too big, but, obviously, it wasn’t for him. He did well in pressure moments, and I thought that was encouraging. He’s a quick guy, a fast guy, and I thought he did a solid job.”
Opponents are taking notes. Take it from Lucas, a former All-SEC receiver at Arkansas.
“He’s doing the right things, loving life and working to be the best that he can be,” Lucas said. “The kid can play on this level, (and) it showed this past weekend. I knew he had it in him. The kid is a playmaker. People say you’ve got guys like Reggie Bush, guys who can stop on a dime, but Will can stop on a needle of grass.”