WHEN EMORY BLAKE PLAYED WIDE RECEIVER AT STEPHEN F. AUSTIN HIGH IN AUSTIN, HIS most important coaching sessions took place in front of his living room television. With his father, Jeff, seated close to him, Emory would watch NFL games every Sunday. Jeff, who played quarterback in the NFL for 14 years, would constantly point out the different defensive alignments he saw on the screen while also noting the coverage schemes and how they could be beat.
"I was able to watch the game through the eyes of an NFL quarterback," Emory says. "It made me a better receiver and gave me an upper hand. Because of all the time we spent together watching film and games, I feel like I have a good idea of what defenses are trying to do and how to react to that."
Thanks to his homeschooling, Blake, a 6' 2", 197-pound senior, may be the most football-smart receiver in the SEC, if not the nation. Though he won't run past many defensive backs—he does the 40 in the 4.6-second range—Blake already ranks 17th in Tigers history with 1,233 receiving yards and has four 100-yard receiving games, tied for fifth-best alltime at Auburn. Hampered by a high right-ankle sprain for nearly half of the 2011 season, Blake nonetheless paced the Tigers in receptions (36) and receiving yards (613), and was second with five touchdown catches. He closed out the season by snagging six passes for 108 yards in Auburn's 43--24 win over Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl game.
"Emory is very crafty at getting open," says Gene Chizik. "He's not the biggest or fastest guy on the field, but he's incredibly savvy. When you grow up around the game like he did, when you're always hanging around the sideline and tossing the ball around, the game becomes a part of you and you develop a high football IQ. Last year he only played at about 65 percent for a lot of the season because of the ankle injury, but now we have high expectations for Emory. He's the type of player that every coach wants."
Blake's goal for the season is to catch 80 passes—or, "80 for number 80," as wide receiver coach Trooper Taylor puts it. The last two seasons Blake primarily has been the Tigers' boundary receiver (meaning he lined up on the short side of the field), but in the spring, new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler moved Blake all over the field, knowing that he is a key to the Tigers' overall offensive success. Blake already has become the favorite target of sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier.
"If you give him a chance and throw the ball in his direction, Emory will come down with it nine times out of 10," says Frazier. "He's definitely one of the best in the SEC."
Chizik always will have a special relationship with Blake partly because the receiver was part of the first recruiting class to sign with Auburn after Chizik was named head coach on Dec. 13, 2008. Blake had nearly committed to Texas Tech, whose offense under coach Mike Leach was as pass-happy as any school's in the nation, but at the last minute Chizik persuaded him to visit the Plains. (Emory's father, Jeff, incidentally, played at East Carolina—and was elected into the school's Hall of Fame.)
"I fell in love with the SEC atmosphere and the coaches here," says Blake of that first trip to Auburn. And that feeling, from the coaches' standpoint, is mutual.