AUBURN, Ala. — First-year Auburn wide receivers coach Kodi Burns already has made a noticeable impact on his new unit in terms of performance through the first two games of the season.
But Burns’ coaching style goes well beyond the “how” of Auburn’s wide receiver play. It’s made immediate differences in the “who,” too.
According to Jay G. Tate of AuburnSports.com, sophomore Ryan Davis has played the most snaps of any wide receiver through the first two weeks of the season.
@JFergusonAU #83 has 71% of all offensive snaps to this point, led receivers both weeks.
— Jay G. Tate (@JayGTate) September 13, 2016
Last season, Davis played in eight games and didn’t record a single catch. But that hasn’t stopped him from becoming Auburn’s most-used receiver in 2016. So, what’s made the difference for Davis?
“Ryan is one of our better practice players,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “Ryan has really earned everything he’s gotten. He’s a dirty-work guy. He goes full speed in everything he does. It’s just one of those things, he’s going to get more and more comfortable playing the wide receiver position.”
Davis, who played quarterback at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., didn’t have a lot of experience at the position going into 2016. But that “dirty work” Malzahn referenced comes out in Davis’ play in run-blocking situations.
Of Auburn’s 156 plays through the first two weeks of the season, 103 of them featured rushing attempts. That means Auburn receivers spend two-thirds of their snaps run-blocking, give or take a few quarterback scrambles or sacks.
Davis, who has recorded just 2 catches for 17 yards in 2016, showed off that blocking prowess on Kerryon Johnson’s highlight-reel, 47-yard touchdown run last Saturday against Arkansas State. Toward the end of Johnson’s run down the sideline, Davis cut-blocks a defender, which opens space for Johnson to hurdle and dive into the end zone for the score.
Kerryon Johnson's absurd TD: Leff allows pressure, White lobs and Ryan Davis chops down the tree on a lead block. pic.twitter.com/CfUnYIrwNg
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) September 11, 2016
While Davis is standing out with his large amounts of playing time through the first two weeks of the season, another former high school quarterback isn’t receiving many snaps at wide receiver.
Senior Jason Smith has played fewer than a dozen snaps this season and hasn’t recorded a catch. Smith entered the season as one of Auburn’s few experienced options at wideout, but that hasn’t materialized into a bigger role — yet.
“Kodi’s got the standpoint that you earn what you get,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “Jason’s continued to work hard. I think you could see Jason’s role grow more and more as the season goes on.”
With underclassmen such as Ryan Davis, Kyle Davis, Nate Craig-Myers, Darius Slayton and Eli Stove pushing their way toward more playing time under Burns, Smith has fallen on the depth chart. He was Auburn’s No. 3 receiver last season with 203 yards and 2 touchdowns on just 13 catches.
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Last week, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee hinted that Smith had been passed by the younger receivers on the practice field.
“We’re going to play the guys who earn it in practice,” Lashlee said Sept. 7. “Jason has had a good week or so, but right now the guys that we’re putting on the field are guys who have earned that spot.”
The path toward Smith getting more playing time under Burns — and the path for others to make their moves in the rotation as Auburn enters SEC play – clearly has been laid out since the former Auburn quarterback-turned-wide receiver took the job in the offseason.
“It’s the little things that make the difference,” Burns said in March. “It’s the dirty work ― the blocking, the extra-hustle plays are the things that make the difference. That’s what I want to see from my guys.”