Players to watch: WR Sammie Coates

Editor’s note: This is part five in a weeklong series looking at five Auburn players to watch this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn starts spring practice on March 18, all eyes will be on incoming wide receiver D'haquille Williams, the No. 1 junior college player in the country. He’s big, fast, strong, and many think he could become the team’s top wide receiver by the time Arkansas comes to town in August.

“He’s got unbelievable skills,” coach Gus Malzahn said on signing day. “I got a chance to get to know him back in his high school days and really think that he’ll have a chance to be an impact player right off the bat.”

Wide receivers’ coach Dameyune Craig went as far as to say Williams could have a Jameis Winston-like impact when he suits up for Auburn next season.

That’s high praise for a kid who has yet to catch a pass for the Tigers, but let’s not forget about Sammie Coates, the team’s No. 1 wide receiver from this past season. Coates, who caught just six passes the year before, led the team with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns.

“Sammie can really run,” Malzahn said prior to the BCS title game. “Coach Craig has done a wonderful job with him. He’s improved with each game.

“Obviously, he gives us a deep threat. Any time you have a guy who can run, as tall as him, and can jump, that’s a threat. When his time has come and when his number has been called, he’s delivered this year.”

The only knock on Coates is that he’s still considered to be just a deep-threat as opposed to the go-to wide receiver. It’s hard to argue with his stats, but when you average only three receptions per game, that’s the label you get.

That’s why this upcoming spring is so important for Coates. He’s entering his junior year and has a chance to emerge as one of the top wide receivers in the SEC.

He and quarterback Nick Marshall already have a strong connection, as was evident last year. He has improved as a player without the ball, blocking better and running more precise routes. But will he ever get his opportunity to take the next step in Auburn’s run-heavy offense?

“I’m just looking forward to winning,” Coates said when asked if he ever wanted a more balanced offense. “Coach Malzahn has got a great plan every time we go out there. I’m just going to follow him and whatever he does.”

The presence of a high-profile wide receiver like Williams would seem to hurt Coates’ chances, but it could be looked at as a good thing, too. It’s likely that Coates will see less double teams, and it gives him motivation heading into the season, a chip on his shoulder that might not have been there before.

It’s still unclear how much Auburn will throw the ball this coming season, but the continuing emergence of Coates and how he co-exists with Williams will play a major factor in Malzahn’s plans. We’ll get our first look at the two together this spring.