Auburn receiver Ronney Daniels spent the hour leading up to his first college game as most freshmen do — trying to calm his nerves.
Daniels was awestruck on Sept. 4, 1999, by the 78,128 screaming fans who erupted as the Tigers ran out of the tunnel. He attempted to soothe the butterflies fluttering in his stomach during pregame warmups. As kickoff approached, he scanned the crowd for his mom. She had driven seven hours from Lake Wales, Fla., to watch her son’s first outing in an Auburn uniform.
Yet when the 23-year old — who played baseball for the Montreal Expos for four years after high school — stepped onto the field, he was not a typical freshman.
In his first season, Daniels caught 56 passes for 1,068 yards and 9 touchdowns — a single-season program record that stands 17 years later. The record could, however, be in danger if Auburn’s freshman receivers — three of four of whom were ranked in the top 15 in the country — play to their potential.
Nate Craig-Myers, Kyle Davis, Eli Stove and Marquis McClain resemble Daniels in many ways. They stand between 6 feet and 6-foot-2, more physically prepared to immediately contribute at the college level. They also will get their opportunity early, beginning with the season opener against No. 2 Clemson on Saturday.
If Gus Malzahn’s heralded 2016 signing class hopes to mirror or exceed Daniels’ success, it will have to do one thing: adopt his mindset.
There was only one instance in which Daniels had been as nervous as he was prior to Auburn’s home opener against Appalachian State in ’99. It was four years earlier — the last time he’d played competitive football — when he was named the MVP of the Florida-Georgia high school all-star game.
Daniels remembers jogging out for his first college series and pleading with himself. He had to catch the ball; he couldn’t make a mistake. Then it happened; the freshman made a play. Daniels caught a 15-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Gabe Gross, giving Auburn a 7-0 lead.
“I caught the ball and shook off the corner and got like 12 or 15 yards off the hitch route,” Daniels recalled. “I got out of bounds, and it kind of woke me up, and I was like, ‘OK, I can play. I am good enough to play in the SEC. I am good enough to play at Auburn.’”
Jeris McIntyre, an Auburn receiver from 2000 to ’03 (and Craig-Myers’ assistant coach at Tampa Catholic High School), had a similar moment during his first college game. After running downfield full speed on a kickoff return, McIntyre quickly realized nothing had changed since high school.
“Everything is so silent when you’re on the field,” McIntyre said. “You don’t think about the crowd or the television. It’s just, ‘OK, I’m here, it’s college football.’ The sideline is just like high school, they play full speed, make a play, are physical. Once I got past that, it was like that every game; it was football again. Mentally, knowing what you have to do, where you need to be, can the QB trust you to be there when you need to be there, that’s the biggest part.”
Daniels’ and McIntyre’s respective first plays reminded them they could be successful simply by being themselves.
They gained confidence and became more comfortable. They learned the different terminology, adjusted to the physicality and acclimated to the faster pace.
Understanding the offense was key.
“Once I started studying, learning the plays and offense, I was able to be more creative,” Daniels said. “That opened up a lot of my skill level, so I could show it.”
First-year wide receivers coach and former Tiger Kodi Burns, who played receiver from 2009 to ’10 after switching from quarterback, tried implementing a similar mentality during fall camp.
“This is college, I get that, but let’s play like we did in high school,” Burns said. “Let’s pick up the offense, and let’s not think. If you don’t have to think, you can play like seniors, not freshmen.”
Malzahn’s four freshmen might not have a choice but to play like veterans. The Tigers finished a disappointing 7-6 (2-6 in SEC play) last season, dropping from 11th in total offense in 2013 and 17th in 2014, to 94th in 2015 (111th in passing offense). Auburn is hoping to field a faster, high-energy offense this season.
“They (freshmen) need to be able to help us this year,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said at the end of fall camp. “So we’ve just got to keep kind of pushing them through it. You can’t really baby them. You can’t bring them along slow. You’ve just got to throw them into the fire, throw them in there with the big boys, and they’re going to learn to swim.”
Malzahn has coached successful freshman receivers. Wide receiver J.D. McKissic was the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year when Malzahn was the head coach at Arkansas State in 2012. McKissic had a school-record 1,022 receiving yards and scored 5 touchdowns on 103 receptions.
As the offensive coordinator at Tulsa in 2007, Malzahn coached the top offense in the country. Freshmen Trae Johnson and Charles Clay each posted 1,000-plus yard seasons.
So far, Malzahn has been pleased with his younger players.
“They’re every bit of what we thought they were,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to play them, they’re going to be out there the first game, and it’s just going to be a matter of how quick they can become comfortable and confident. It’s very exciting, the future at wide receiver. Once those guys do get comfortable, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Until the newcomers get on the field, the coaching staff can’t be sure how they will perform.
“Experience with freshmen in big games — some guys, they get out there and it doesn’t matter. It’s like they’ve done it their whole life,” Lashlee said. “Other guys, even though they’re going to be fine, it’s just, it’s different. We hope those freshmen compete and contribute a lot in the first game. We’ve certainly got no problem giving them opportunities.”
For McIntyre, making plays on accomplished and experienced players was a tremendous confidence boost, often leading to another positive play.
In terms of 2016 rankings, the competition can’t get much better than it will on Saturday night. Clemson is the second-best team in the country and the national runner-up. The game will be televised by ESPN in prime time.
Daniels is certain the freshmen will be anxious, but he also knows all it takes is one catch.
“They should be excited. That’s very rare that you’re coming into a big-time program like Auburn, which has athletes year in and year out, and you’ve got a chance to be in the spotlight and showcase yourself right away,” Daniels said. “For those freshman guys, it’s time to grow up, be a man.
“They’ll have butterflies every game, but once you get out there and get that first catch in, things will slow down. They’ll start making plays.”