Auburn football’s wide receiver overhaul puts young talent in the spotlight

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser
Auburn wide receiver Elijah Canion (17) stiff arms a Northwestern defender on a 57-yard touchdown catch during the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2021.

There might not be a position on Auburn’s roster undergoing as big a facelift as wide receiver.

Tigers quarterbacks completed 216 passes for 2,423 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2020. Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove combined for 145 catches, 1,755 yards and 10 touchdowns.

That’s 67.1%, 72.2% and 83.3% of the team’s total production in those categories, respectively, and Auburn won’t have any of them back next season –juniors Williams and Schwartz already announced their intention to forgo their senior seasons and enter the NFL Draft, and the fifth-year senior Stove will do the same despite being allowed to return.

Auburn is looking at a complete overhaul of that position under new coach Bryan Harsin.

Fortunately, the talent already might be in place. Some of it was on display in Friday’s Citrus Bowl. Elijah Canion scored the team’s first touchdown, turning an intermediate pass down the right sideline into a 57-yard catch-and-run score with a powerful stiff-arm of a Northwestern defensive back. He finished with three catches for 80 yards after appearing in only one game during the regular season.

The 6-foot-4 Canion was one of six true or redshirt freshman wide receivers on the 2020 roster, along with Ze’Vian Capers, J.J. Evans, Kobe Hudson, Malcolm Johnson Jr. and Ja’Varrius Johnson. The Tigers will soon add another in three-star Mansfield, Texas, product Hal Presley, who signed in December.

The only scholarship upperclassmen slated to be on the roster next season are juniors Shedrick Jackson and Caylin Newton, the latter of whom just completed his first season playing wide receiver.

So Auburn will be low on returning production. Jackson led those players with 84 receiving yards this season. Capers (who underwent successful surgery after suffering a left foot injury against the Wildcats) and Hudson led them with seven catches apiece for 77 and 70 yards, respectively. Only Canion (against Northwestern) and Capers (against LSU) scored touchdowns.

Evans, the two Johnsons and Newton did not record catches in 2020, and of those, only Newton appeared in more than one game.

But five of those six freshmen (all but Canion) were four-star recruits ranked in the top 45 nationally in their respective classes coming out of high school. Capers and Evans, like Canion, have Williams-esque size. None are as fast as Schwartz, but Malcolm Johnson Jr. might not be too far off – he was considered to be one of the fastest recruits in the country coming out of St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School in Alexandria, Virginia.

“Those guys are getting some great quality reps and really doing a good job for us,” quarterback Bo Nix said as Auburn prepared for the Citrus Bowl. “They're continuing to learn, as far as young guys learning the game of football and learning how DBs play and learning different schemes and route combinations and how they can be effective and at the same time being more sharp and continuing to grow as receivers.”

Auburn wide receiver Ze'Vian Capers (80) catches his first career touchdown pass against LSU at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Oct. 31, 2020.

And they’re not the only talented weapons Auburn has in the passing game. Tight ends Luke Deal, Brandon Frazier and J.J. Pegues combined to catch 11 passes for 81 yards as freshmen in 2020. Veteran John Samuel Shenker should return.

Former Oklahoma standout Grant Calcaterra, who caught 41 passes for 637 yards and nine touchdowns over three seasons with the Sooners before stepping away from the game 2019, signed in December.

That alone is more career production than the rest of the receivers slated to be on Auburn’s roster next season combined. But as Canion showed against the Wildcats, there has been young talent waiting in the wings behind Williams, Schwartz and Stove.

Now, those players are in the spotlight.

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.