NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. —
Sammie Coates went to work on himself during the offseason.
The star receiver for No. 2 Auburn had a self-improvement checklist that included being more focused and team-oriented and getting better at going across the middle. And that was just the football stuff.
''Off the field I made a lot of big steps with my life,'' Coates said. ''I got baptized. I tried to change my life around as far as doing the right things and helping others. It's just the little things. I really haven't been focused. I've always been putting myself ahead of everything else. I just figured out that it isn't all about me.
''We've got a team, we've got a family outside this place. Auburn fans, they look up to us, kids look up to us.''
His offseason endeavors have paid dividends on and off the field.
Coates emerged as the Tigers' best receiver and only consistent downfield threat, racking up big yards in an offense that's otherwise mostly about the running game.
He ranks second nationally with a 22.8-yard average on 38 catches. Seven went for touchdowns, all of at least 36 yards. Nobody else on the team has reached 300 yards receiving, so it's no secret who will be the focus of a Florida State secondary that leads the nation in interceptions.
''In the secondary, we don't need any super heroes,'' Seminoles cornerback Lamarcus Joyner said. ''We've got to do our job and be disciplined. Obviously, Auburn's a powerful, physical running football team that can throw with great receivers. Just watching him on film, he's a big, physical guy. He's an SEC guy, big, physical and the guy can make plays. So no super heroes.
''Keep our eyes on him because he's a threat. We must know where he's at at all times on the football field.''
Florida State safety Terrence Brooks feels the Seminoles are up to the task.
''He's just one guy,'' Brooks said. ''We'll respect him. I'm sure he does some things.''
For Auburn, he's done big things. It's been a remarkable transformation for Coates the player, an unheralded recruit who had six catches as a redshirt freshman last season.
Coates was recruited by South Alabama and Southern Miss before catching the attention of Tigers coaches at a camp in Auburn. He has thrived in coach Gus Malzahn's offense, which has largely been about running and throwing the deep ball.
Coates has averaged 54.1 yards on his seven touchdown catches, including an 88-yarder against Arkansas. He's had four 100-yard games while the other wide receivers have topped 50 yards only three times.
How big a role does Coates play in an oft-overshadowed passing game? He has accounted for 38 percent of the Tigers' receiving yards, more than the nation's leading receiver, Oregon State's Brandin Cooks (35.7 percent).
''We expect him to go vertical but when he sits down and catches the ball and moves with the ball, that's when, to me, he's at his most dangerous,'' Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead said. ''He can run across the field and make everybody miss. He's a hard guy to catch.''
Working with new receivers coach Dameyune Craig, a former Florida State assistant, Coates focused on keeping his eye on the ball and adopting the mentality that ''when the ball is in the air, it's yours and nobody else's.''
He said he's applied the renewed focus to his whole life since last season, and it's been evident on the field.
''I really wasn't into football like I was supposed to have been,'' Coates said. ''This year I'm into everything. Football. More focused on that. More focused on helping others, more focused on my schoolwork. It helped me be level-headed.''
It's not just about what he takes in, but what Coates puts out publicly.
Last season, he was the first Auburn player to air concerns about the team publicly, saying the Tigers lacked leadership. ''If we're going to play like this, we're going to keep losing,'' Coates said last September.
If the comments proved prophetic in a 3-9 season, they were awfully bold for a freshman.
Now, he regularly posts Bible verses on his Twitter and Facebook pages. Coates and fellow Auburn receiver Trovon Reed were baptized before the season.
''A lot of people (on the team) look up to me because of my faith,'' Coates said. ''I don't put anything negative out there to the world. I always show my best and I always pray before I get on the field.''
And produces once he's there.