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Which upcoming freshman receiver do you think will have the most impact next year, either in the receiving or return game.
— Cow College Basketball Fan Account (@Bro_WithThe_Fro) February 14, 2018
AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football didn’t need to sign the type of wide receiver class it landed in 2018. But it did, and now the most experienced unit on the roster will add four playmakers this season.
Playing time might be hard to find for the newcomers at receiver. Auburn returns everybody who finished the 2017 season at wideout, with five of them catching at least 15 passes last season.
But it’s hard to imagine Auburn not turning loose its young receivers this offseason and letting them challenge for spots on the depth chart in 2018.
The highest potential might depend on the position. In the spring practice preview for wide receivers Wednesday, we outlined how most of the returning production is at the flanker and slot positions. Early enrollee Shedrick Jackson will figure into those roles.
At split end and big slot, Auburn has top vertical threat Darius Slayton and the physically gifted Nate Craig-Myers in front of Sal Cannella and Marquis McClain. The latter two combined for just 5 catches last season. If there’s a spot to take at wide receiver, it’s in this rotation.
And without it sounding like too much of a copout, the top player for this role appears to be the highest-rated of Auburn’s four new wide receivers.
Matthew Hill was the nation’s No. 17 wide receiver and was a top-100 overall recruit. Joey Gatewood was Auburn’s only 2018 signee who was rated higher than Hill.
Hill’s athleticism and versatility is so strong that Clemson — which made a late push — wanted him to play defensive back.
Fortunately for Auburn, Hill decided to stick with his commitment and play offense. His new coaching staff couldn’t have sounded happier.
“Matthew Hill is a guy that came to our junior camp three years in a row, a guy that we recruited for a long period of time,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said on Signing Day. “We really feel like he’s one of the better just football players in all of the country. This guy can do it all. We’re very excited about him. He’s going to play wide receiver for us. He’s the type of guy you just want to get the ball in his hands.”
Those are big words to attach to an incoming freshman, but Hill’s numbers back them up.
At Brookwood High School — one of the largest schools in Georgia and a state semifinalist in 2017 — Hill put up 52 receptions for 879 yards and 7 touchdowns; 76 carries for 695 yards and 4 touchdowns; and 349 return yards and 1 touchdown as a senior.
As SEC Country’s Benjamin Wolk wrote in his Signee 101 story on Hill, the closest comparison Auburn has on the roster for Hill is Slayton. He has the rushing-receiving versatility of a flanker, but at 6-foot-2 he has the size and speed of a split end.
“Hill brings a versatility to the football field few other prospects in the class can,” Wolk wrote. “In high school, he lined up out wide, at running back and as a returner.”
With an opening at punt returner and a long list of candidates at kick returner, Hill could make a difference on special teams in 2018. Not being on campus for spring practices might hurt his chances, but Auburn won’t make any final decisions on the depth chart until everyone is enrolled and practicing.
As a fourth-year junior, Slayton is one of Auburn’s most experienced receivers. Auburn hasn’t had anyone quite like him the last couple of seasons.
But the Tigers might just have his ready-made replacement in Hill, and there’s a chance he’ll be able to learn behind Slayton for at least one full season on the Plains.
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