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Undersized, underrated and undrafted: Will Hastings hoping to catch on with the Patriots

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/25/2020 Nicole Yang
a baseball player wearing a helmet: When wide receiver Will Hastings signed as an undrafted free agent with the New England Patriots, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn saw it as a perfect fit. " You look and see how they’ve been successful with guys with his skill set.” Malzahn said. © Butch Dill When wide receiver Will Hastings signed as an undrafted free agent with the New England Patriots, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn saw it as a perfect fit. " You look and see how they’ve been successful with guys with his skill set.” Malzahn said.

Three years ago, Detroit Lions running back Kerryon Johnson made a prediction: Will Hastings will be a New England Patriot.

Johnson, who overlapped with Hastings for three seasons at Auburn, tweeted during the 2017 NFL Draft: “Can’t believe in a year or [two], I’ll be hearing Will Hastings name get called to the Patriots.”

Sure enough, Johnson was onto something.

“I started hearing that even before KJ tweeted it,” recalled Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. “You just know a fit. You look and see how they’ve been successful with guys with his skill set.”

At 5 feet 10 inches, Hastings boasts tremendous speed and an uncanny ability to get in and out of breaks. He holds the fastest time in Auburn history for both the 10-yard split and the L, or three-cone, drill. As Malzahn noted, he matches the prototype of the shifty, undersized slot receivers that have come through New England, such as Julian Edelman and Wes Welker.

Though the Patriots didn’t end up drafting Hastings this year, they still picked him up in April via the undrafted free agent market. He joins Sean Riley (Syracuse), Jeff Thomas (Miami), and Isaiah Zuber (Mississippi State) as the incoming crop of receivers.

“I think Will fits New England's system perfectly,” said Auburn wide receivers coach Kodi Burns. “He’s going to get open against anybody. I don’t care who it is. It may be unorthodox sometimes, but it doesn’t matter. The guy is virtually unguardable out in space.”

Shake, rattle and roll

At Pulaski Academy, a small private secondary school in Arkansas, the very first pass thrown to Hastings hit him square in the face.

“I mean, if you watched the first five minutes of practice, you definitely would not have thought in a million years that this kid would be playing high school football, let alone college football or pro,” said head football coach Kevin Kelley.

As a freshman, and former youth soccer player, Hastings only dabbled in receiver and primarily focused on his role as the team’s kicker. Kelley often deployed onside kicks, as opposed to a traditional kickoff, so Hastings was focused on nailing his technique.

In four years, Kelley estimated Hastings converted 20 percent of his 150 or so on-side kicks attempts. During his final two seasons, Hastings also knocked down 115 of his 128 extra-point attempts, good for 90 percent.

Still, Kelley saw potential in Hastings as an offensive threat because of his natural athleticism. The quickness, agility, and footwork — his “God-given abilities,” as Pulaski’s wide receivers coach Anthony Lucas called them — were already there.

While keeping his job at kicker, Hastings began to earn more opportunities at receiver as a sophomore. In 12 games, he caught 13 passes for 224 yards and five touchdowns. The flashes of success began multiplying.

During one practice, Hastings juked his defender so viciously he earned a new nickname.

“He shook a guy,” recalled Lucas. “I was like, ‘Boy, you like the ‘Harlem Shake,’’’ something P. Diddy had back in the day. So, I started calling him, ‘Diddy,’ because of his shakes.”

In order to maximize his craftiness and speed, Hastings worked with Lucas on his mechanics and route-running. Lucas stressed to Hastings the importance of catching the ball over his shoulder, instead of reaching back and putting his hands up.

“When he reaches back even though he doesn’t have to, the defender has time to catch up and knock the ball out,” Lucas explained. “Will is not a tall guy, so I’m like, ‘You have to keep your body between the defender and the ball.’ ”

It took only a few weeks for Hastings to get the hang of things. His junior year, he earned a starting job at receiver, and tallied 67 receptions for 1,400 yards and 21 touchdowns in 12 games. His production only went up from there.

As a senior, Hastings became one of only two players in state history to eclipse 2,000 receiving yards in a single season. He racked up 113 receptions, 23 touchdowns, All-State honors, and a state championship.

No matter how impressive his stats, though, Hastings always gave off some nervous energy. The coaches would often involve him in the first play of the game, just to help brush off some of the pregame jitters. Kelley still remembers how Hastings once approached him minutes before kickoff to express some concerns.

“He comes up to me — and this was classic Will Hastings — he comes up to me right before the game and is like, ‘Coach, I don’t know. I don’t think we should call that first play to me. I’m not sure I’m going to catch the ball,’” Kelley recalled.

According to Kelley, Hastings not only ended up catching that first pass but finished the half with four touchdowns.

“When he gets on the field, at the moment, he knows he can do it,” added Lucas. “But outside of that, he never talks about it. He never talks that game.”

A risk-reward receiver

Despite his strong performances as an upperclassman, Hastings heard crickets from Division 1 college programs. He had received offers from a few Division 2 schools, including Ouachita Baptist University, Henderson State, and Southern Arkansas.

“He just wasn’t the right size for the big boys,” Kelley said. “He was 5-foot-9, 160 pounds. He knows he’s good enough to play, he feels like he’s good enough to play, he shows he’s good enough to play, but nobody gave him a chance.”

When Hastings wanted to walk-on at Auburn, Malzahn saw an opportunity to gain an unconventional advantage.

“Let’s add an onside kick specialist,” Malzahn thought. “Why not try and get an edge that way?”

Malzahn intended on using Hastings only on special teams, even though he knew about his numbers as a high school slot receiver.

As a true freshman in 2015, Hastings attempted two onside kicks — neither of which converted — but Malzahn’s decision to take a risk on Hastings still ended up paying off.

A slew of injuries decimated Auburn’s receiving corps during spring football that year, so Malzahn and Burns turned to Hastings. The idea was for Hastings to be a placeholder, just a body to fill in until the top players were healthy enough to return.

Then they saw him in action.

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During the team’s first spring practice, Burns watched as Hastings made “crazy catches” in one-on-one matchups against cornerback Carlton Davis, who was drafted 63rd overall in 2018 and now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“I was like, ‘Man this guy might actually be really good,’ ” recalled Burns. “As the days continued to pass, he just got better and better, and we were like, ‘He might be able to make an impact.’ ”

Hastings’s first official snaps as a receiver came his sophomore year, in Auburn’s nationally-televised season opener against second-ranked Clemson. He caught three passes, all in crucial moments.

“We’re trotting Will Hastings out there, a freakin’ kicker, to start,” said Burns. “He had two third-down conversions and a fourth-down conversion that really kept us in the game.”

In the week following the game, Hastings fielded a handful of questions from reporters: What’s scarier: seeing all these cameras or being on the field for the first time? Did you ever imagine when you got to Auburn that you would ever get that role? At what point in the preseason drills, did you feel like you were going to get a shot at wide receiver?

One thing was clear: Few saw his rise coming.

Hastings finished his sophomore season with 11 catches for 98 yards. With help from Auburn’s strength and conditioning staff, he returned for a breakout season in 2017, when he totaled 525 receiving yards. He and quarterback Jarrett Stidham, whom the Patriots drafted in 2019, linked for four touchdowns, including one for 47 yards and another for 49.

Malzahn called Hastings Stidham's "security blanket."

“He’s one of the few guys that we feel like could get open, man-to-man, versus anybody covering him," said Malzahn. “He’s probably the best double-move guy that I’ve had since I’ve been coaching.”

Hastings’s development halted in 2018, when he suffered a torn ACL that sidelined him for the entire season. He returned as a redshirt senior but missed a bit more time after reinjuring his knee early in the fall. In 10 games last season, he posted 222 receiving yards on 19 catches.

Had Hastings not injured his knee, Burns is convinced he would have been drafted. But he still got his chance in the NFL — and Burns is confident he’ll prove he’s worth keeping around.

“Really, everybody doubted him,” Burns said. “What do you expect? Everybody should. I mean, he was a kicker. Coming out of high school and coming to a school like Auburn, where we win national championships and recruit at a high level, he wouldn’t have a chance. He proved everybody wrong that time. I think he’s looking to do the same thing in the NFL.”

College ties bind

In New England, Hastings will get the opportunity to reunite with Stidham, who became one of his close friends.

Hastings attended Stidham's wedding in June 2019, and Stidham will be a groomsman when Hastings and his fianceé Gracie Henley tie the knot.

“When Jarrett went there, it was like almost a common-sense deal,” Malzahn said.

Kelley is hopeful Stidham's presence will help relax Hastings.

“Not that he wouldn’t be OK anyway, but for a kid that’s always just worried about being good enough — and he’s used that to motivate himself — but for a kid that’s always worried about being good enough, you want him to be confident and comfortable," he said.

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