‘Eli equals stability’: Veteran receiver Stove quietly making big impact for Auburn football

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

AUBURN — Eli Stove finds it funny that he has become Auburn’s primary punt returner.

It makes him think back to when he was in eighth grade in Niceville, Florida. He still remembers the time he caught a punt, turned his eyes downfield and immediately “got killed” by someone on the coverage team. He didn’t do it much after that.

But when the Tigers wanted a steadying, veteran presence to step into that role a few weeks ago, Stove is who they turned to.

That perhaps best highlights the senior wide receiver’s importance to this Auburn football team. He’s not a star on offense the same way Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz are, but he’s a crucial weapon in quarterback Bo Nix’s arsenal. He may not be as explosive as Christian Tutt on punt return, but he’s reliable.

Coach Gus Malzahn summed it up rather simply: “Eli equals stability.”

Stove has 21 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns this season, which is well behind the other two-thirds of Auburn’s big three at wide receiver – Williams has 28 catches for 511 yards and three scores, and Schwartz 38 for 422 and two. But the senior played in only four of the Tigers’ first six games. The two he missed show how much better their passing attack is with him in it.

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Nix attempted 68 passes against Georgia (where Stove was injured in the opening minutes) and Arkansas, completing 55.9%. Schwartz (26) and Williams (19) were the targets on more than 66% of those throws. Only two of the quarterback’s other 23 attempts went to wide receivers, with the rest going to running backs and tight ends.

Those are the only two games this season the sophomore quarterback hasn’t topped 200 yards passing.

But over the past three games – against South Carolina, Ole Miss and LSU – Nix’s 101 pass attempts have been distributed more evenly. Stove’s return from injury has made the biggest difference. Williams (30) and Schwartz (25) remain the quarterback’s favorite targets, drawing nearly 55% of his throws, but he also threw 34 of his other passes to four different wide receivers. Stove led that group with 19 targets.

Nix completed 64.4% of his throws in those games and topped 235 yards in all of them.

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“You cannot be so predictable that only one or two guys are your main targets,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “So our ability to spread the ball around over the last few weeks has really helped us out a bunch.”

And what Stove lacks in volume he makes up for with efficiency. His catch rate of 91.3% leads all SEC receivers with more than 10 targets this season, per SEC StatCat. He caught 17 of those 19 targets against the Gamecocks, Rebels and Tigers, turning them into 146 yards (8.6 average) and a pair of touchdowns.

Sixteen of those targets have been on throws either behind the line of scrimmage or less than 10 yards down the field, which is where Stove operates best – 104 of his yards over the past three games have come after the catch.

“He’s got great experience and he’s had a lot of success getting the ball out on the perimeter whether it was speed sweeps or getting, you know, catching some flat throws and making guys miss,” Morris said. “Very seldom do you see one guy bring Eli down.”

That’s the player Stove has always been for Auburn. The Tigers are now 11-3 when he catches at least four passes, which he has done in every game he's played in this season.

It’s part of why Malzahn has been calling him ‘Old Eli’ ever since he was a four-star freshman in 2016. He might not be the most targeted receiver (he’s never had a 100-yard game) or most explosive playmaker (he’s averaged 9.6 yards per touch during his career), but when the ball in his hands, the coaching staff knows he’s going to make the right play.

“I get the job done,” Stove said. “Whatever they need me to do, I’ll get it done to the best of my ability.”

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.