Move over Nick Marshall, there's a new Heisman Trophy candidate on the Plains.
Wide receiver D'haquille "Duke" Williams.
While most of the focus for the stiff-arm trophy is centered on quarterbacks, Auburn sent a running back—Tre Mason—to New York last December as a Heisman finalist.
Judging from his Week 1 performance against Arkansas, Williams could be the second non-quarterback in as many years to throw his hat into the Heisman ring.
Williams caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown in his debut for head coach Gus Malzahn's crew, showing off the big-play ability that followed him to Auburn as the No. 1 junior college prospect in the class of 2014.
"He’s very talented and we saw that in the spring and saw that in fall camp," Malzahn said in quotes emailed by Auburn. "I was happy for him that he was able to transition success in practice to the field. It’s like anything else—the more comfortable he feels in our offense, the better he will be."
Why might Williams jump into the Heisman fray?
At 6'2", 216 pounds with long arms and catlike agility, Williams presents a matchup problem for opposing defensive coordinators.
Should coaches line up their No. 1 corner on Williams or Sammie Coates—the 6'2", 201-pound junior who finished third in the nation in yards per catch last year at 21.48? Who should be double-teamed?
Even the best corners in the country would struggle with Coates on an island, which leaves a corner and/or a safety alone with Williams. Not an easy task.
In the opener against Arkansas, we saw Williams score on an 18-yard catch-and-run on a slant over the middle and gain 62 yards on a post route. On both plays, he was lined up in the slot, which allows Williams to use that big body and catch radius over the middle against players who simply can't cover him.
Tight end C.J. Uzomah knows how much this helps, via Ryan Black of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer.
Uzomah said having D'haquille Williams lining up in the slot creates an "awful matchup" for opposing defenses.— WarEagleExtra (@wareagleextra) September 2, 2014
"He's one of those guys who's big and can also run. He gives you the best of both worlds," he said. "It takes a lot of versatility to play that inside receiver in our offense. We moved him around a little bit on Saturday, and you'll see us move all of our guys around more as the season goes on."
What should opposing defensive coordinators do? Double Williams and leave Sammie Coates one-on-one? Coates will win those matchups more often than not, and something like this might happen:
Having Coates outside coupled with Williams' versatility is a big problem for the opposition and a tremendous luxury for Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee.
Williams' lone touchdown reception against the Hogs came on a quick slant and run over the middle, where he powered through a defender and reached the ball into the end zone.
He's just scratching the surface.
Williams' ability to put his body in position to make a catch and then hit top speed in a hurry makes him a weapon to score from just about anywhere on the field.
In the red zone, Williams' leaping ability and body control make him a prime option for Malzahn and Lashlee on corner routes and fade routes. He showed off these traits in the spring game, nabbing a perfectly placed fade from Marshall in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
Are 15 touchdowns out of reach? Not in the least. If that happens, those touchdowns could help Williams punch his ticket to New York City.
His Part of Nick Marshall's Progression
Fair or not, Marshall is viewed as a system quarterback by a large portion of the country. He's a runner first, and he takes advantage of secondaries that creep up to defend the multidimensional Auburn running game. The goal this year for Auburn's passing game was to be more balanced with Marshall.
"We led the country in rushing last year. When you do that, defenses have to take some chances," head coach Gus Malzahn said at Media Days in July. "We've got to do a better job this year of making them pay when they do take chances."
The staff worked with Marshall this offseason to be more consistent through the air. If he progresses, it's likely that Williams' presence as a versatile weapon will be a big reason for that in the minds of Heisman voters.
Will Marshall still be viewed as a system quarterback?
By some, yes, and for those who still hold that card against him, the obvious beneficiary will be Williams, who will get credited for Marshall's development.
It's going to take a lot for a wide receiver to become a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. Being a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate, however, isn't as difficult.
Williams has the skills, system and exposure to make a pretty strong case if Week 1 is any indication of what's in store for him and the Tigers in 2014.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, and co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208. Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats are courtesy of CFBStats.com, and all recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.