Auburn Football: Why No. 2 WR Position Will Be X-Factor for Tigers in 2014

Justin FergusonCFB National AnalystMarch 24, 2014

Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates (18) celebrates his touchdown with Auburn wide receiver Quan Bray (4) during the first half of the Southeastern Conference NCAA football championship game against the Missouri, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore/Associated Press

In the first half of the 2013 SEC Championship Game, Nick Marshall threw six passes.

All six of those passes were completed to one target: Sammie Coates.

When Marshall took to the air in crucial situations last season, with the obvious exception of Ricardo Louis' miracle catch against Georgia, most of his passes were to Coates, who finished the season No. 3 nationally in yards per catch.

But Marshall did not throw many passes to Coates or any of Auburn's secondary receivers in their run to Pasadena last season. In Gus Malzahn's return to the Plains, 72 percent of his offensive play calls were running plays.

Although the read-option tandem of Marshall and NFL-bound Tre Mason gave opposing defenses fits last season, Malzahn has said he does not want to be as run-heavy in 2014.

“If you look back, we’ve had years where we throw it a lot,” Malzahn said last December. “We’re going to get more and more balanced next year."

While the speedy Coates emerged as the clear-cut deep option for Marshall in his first season at Auburn, the Tigers lacked another go-to, shorter route-running threat in the passing game.

Malzahn wants that to change this spring.

"We feel like we have more options now," Malzahn said in his opening press conference of spring practice. "With Nick and Jeremy going through spring and Jonathan Wallace back, there are more starters back. Any time you have that, there are more weapons developed."

One front-runner for the No. 2 starting wide receiver role, which was shared by several Auburn players last season, is D'haquille "Duke" Williams.

Williams, who was rated the No. 1 junior college recruit in the Class of 2013 by 247Sports, wasted no time in impressing his new coaches and teammates in Auburn's first week of spring practice.

"You can tell why we needed him and why we wanted him," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, per Brandon Marcello of "He's got God-given abilities that are really good, and I think he'll really add value to our wide receiving corps."

Tight end C.J. Uzomah, who said he is focused on also becoming more of a weapon in Auburn's passing game, raved about Williams following the Tigers' first practice in full pads Saturday.

"He’s a freak, he’s a monster," Uzomah said. "I’m not sure if I’ve seen someone have as much presence attacking the ball. We come out here with pads on and he’s getting after it. He’s making unbelievable catches down the field and making plays with his feet."

Dave Martin/Associated Press

Williams is not the only newcomer looking to break into an Auburn receiving corps filled with returning players such as former 4-star recruit Quan Bray, the sure-handed Marcus Davis and Melvin Ray, the Tallahassee, Fla., native who hauled in his first career touchdown against his hometown Seminoles in Pasadena.

Early enrollee Stanton Truitt, who was a dual-threat quarterback in his high school career, has started spring practice as a slot receiver. While Malzahn and Lashlee have talked about Truitt's potential as a "scat back" on reverses and jet sweeps, his speed could make him a target for Marshall through the air and not just on the ground.

"Truitt is going to be a good guy," cornerback Jonathon Mincy told Alex Byington of the Opelika-Auburn News. "He’s quick with his feet, great hands."

With opposing SEC defenses already having a feel for Auburn's rushing attack after last season, another go-to target besides Coates is crucial for the defending SEC champions' offensive plans for more balance in 2014.

And through the first week of practice, Marshall seems confident in Auburn's returning pieces and dynamic newcomers at wide receiver.

"We’ve got great receivers," Marshall said. "It’s going to be sick watching us this year."

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.