‘White Lightning’ strikes again: Auburn WR Will Hastings continues rise as unlikely big-play weapon

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football’s leading receiver through five games is a 5-foot-10 former walk-on who started his career as an onside kick specialist.

“A lot of people back home think you look like you’re 13, so no one really gives you a chance,” Auburn junior receiver Will Hastings said Saturday. “So I definitely think that helps out size-wise. They don’t really think I’m a threat, and then I can be.”

Will Hastings became a household name for Auburn early last season, when he caught eight passes in the first three games of the season. But when Auburn turned things around on offense, Hastings fell out of the rotation at receiver. He only had three more catches in the next 10 contests.

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Hastings vowed in the offseason he wouldn’t go down quietly again. The receiver Auburn teammates call “White Lightning” wanted to be a consistent factor for the Tigers in 2017.

On Saturday night in a 49-10 win over Mississippi State, Hastings showed why he’s here to stay for the Auburn offense. The Arkansas native torched the Bulldogs’ secondary with a double move — a route that started as a corner, then quickly shifted to a deep post.

Hastings ran a nearly identical route last weekend against Missouri, when he grabbed a 46-yard pass in the second quarter of a 51-13 rout.

“It’s almost the same thing I did against Missouri,” Hastings said. “I just looked out like I was doing a seven-cut and hit it back in. We’ve been working on it all week.”

Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham then delivered his easiest pass of the night, a 47-yard touchdown that put the Tigers up 21-3 early in the second quarter.

“We had it set up earlier in the game,” Stidham said. “We came back from the punt and figured that this was the perfect time to call it. Sure enough, Will made the double move and scored. That’s exactly the way we drew it up.”

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Auburn wide receiver Will Hastings caught a 40-plus-yard pass for the second straight week. (Michael Chang/Getty Images)

The touchdown was Hastings’ only catch of the game, but it was enough to maintain his lead in Auburn’s receiving yardage race. Hastings now has 257 yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches through five games — all stats more than what he finished with in 13 games last fall.

Auburn first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has used Hastings, who caught mostly short passes out of the slot last season, as a bigger-play weapon this season. His ability to get open has been extended from slants and screens to deeper plays downfield.

“Will is a guy that showed flashes last year and in the spring really took the next step forward,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday. “He’s a dynamic route-runner. When he gets space on people, he’s really tough to handle. He did a super job.”

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Hastings does that with his elite quickness, which Stidham — a former quarterback at Baylor — says exceeds anything he’s ever seen.

“He’s a phenomenal player,” Stidham said. “For some reason, that guy, he’s just always open. He’s the quickest guy I’ve ever seen. He holds all sorts of records in our weight room for conditioning.”

As Auburn nears the halfway point in the season, “White Lightning” has made sure he won’t blow over like a pop-up thunderstorm this time. Hastings is one of Stidham’s most reliable targets, and he’s been able to make plays all over the field.

And Hastings thinks things could get even better as his quarterback continues to get settled into Auburn’s attack.

“For offense, it all starts with the quarterback,” Hastings said. “So if he feels comfortable, then we’re going to get rolling.”

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