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Auburn sophomore wide receiver Montez Billings (84) hauls in a catch past Arkansas' Michael Grant. Billings is healthy again and says he's ready to play a larger role in the Tigers' offense.
AP photo by Beth Hall
Auburn sophomore wide receiver Montez Billings (84) hauls in a catch past Arkansas' Michael Grant. Billings is healthy again and says he's ready to play a larger role in the Tigers' offense.

Billings ready to make impact
Finally healthy, sophomore receiver helping Tigers

By Ross Dellenger ∑ 340-2460

AUBURN — Montez Billings' cleats clanked off the pavement as he emerged from the locker room, his jersey pulled tight over his shoulder pads and his chin strap buckled.

It was Aug. 3, and the Auburn receiver thought this would be the day he would make a full-speed return to practice. This would be the day he would show the Tigers' coaches he deserves a spot in the starting lineup.

Moments later, Billings grabbed the back of his leg, wincing in pain. After a brief discussion with an Auburn trainer, the sophomore found himself in a familiar position: riding a stationary bike with the other wounded players.

It was a rough start to the 2007 season for Billings, who emerged from spring as one of three starting receivers for Auburn. But a hamstring injury during the opening week of preseason drills sidelined him for more than a month.

Midway through the season, he's finally caught up.

"Being out that long really hurt him as far as conditioning goes," receivers coach Greg Knox said. "He had to work himself back into game-type condition."

He apparently has done that and more, as No. 23 Auburn (5-3, 3-2 SEC) prepares to face Ole Miss (2-6, 0-5) on Saturday.

With 16 catches in the last four games — that's 13 more grabs than he had entering this season — Billings has emerged from a pack of untested receivers to join Rod Smith as one of quarterback Brandon Cox's go-to wideouts — a guy coach Tommy Tuberville was in search of.

"We have been looking for that second receiver that Brandon can have a lot of confidence in," Tuberville said. "(Billings) is one of those guys that doesn't say a whole lot. He works hard and has done it in practice."

As Tuberville mentioned, Billings is not much of a talker.

This week, with reporters gathered around him, Billings leaned up against a chair in the Auburn interview room with little to say.

"It seems like the ball is coming at me more and more each game," he said, his braided hair nearly covering his ears. "I just have to continue making plays when the opportunity comes to me."

A former four-star, highly recruited prospect, Billings was expected to do great things at Auburn, but the injury slowed him.

He had offers from Florida and Georgia, but chose Auburn in November 2004.

Billings said he regained coaches' trust by working hard in practice, recovering from that hamstring affliction.

"They're getting more comfortable with me in the offense and giving me more play on the field," said Billings, whom Tuberville calls "tall and rangy."

Billings may have made the biggest play of his career against LSU when he hauled in the first touchdown pass of the game. Running a post route into the end zone, Billings flagged down a scrambling Cox, waving his arms in the air. A second later, the Pelham native cradled the ball into his chest for his first career touchdown.

"He made a hell of a play," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "He's made a difference in our offense."

Still recovering from that hamstring injury, Billings was held out of the season opener against Kansas State. He had a catch in the second game and then didn't touch the ball again until the fifth contest of the season, at Florida, where he collected the first start of his career.

Cox knows having another confident receiver on the field is not a bad thing. Smith and Billings have combined for 38 receptions during the last four games. All other receivers have four.

"Having them two out on the field, it softens up the defense," said Cox, who has been playing more consistently since Billings' emergence. "They're not able to key on one guy. We have two guys out there who are playmakers."

Ole Miss (2-6, 0-5 SEC) at No. 23 Auburn (5-3, 3-2)

When: Saturday, 5 p.m.

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn.

Line: Auburn by 181/2.

TV/radio: The game will be televised on pay-per-view. For details on how to get the broadcast, contact your local cable company. The radio broadcast can be heard on FM-106.1, FM-95.9, FM-98.3 and AM-1230.

Players to watch: Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves is one sack short of breaking the schoolís career sack record. Ole Miss gives up the second-most sacks in the SEC at almost three a game. Running back Brad Lesterís offensive production has increased each game since returning from a six-game suspension for the Oct. 6 game against Vanderbilt. Ole Missí rushing defense ranks last in the conference.

Ole Missí offense is the worst in the league, but running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a good running back whom Auburn will need to slow.

Key matchup: A streaky Auburn offense against a struggling Ole Miss defense. Auburn has shown it can score when it needs to, but the Tigers also have stalled for long periods of time.

Weather: Sunny, a high of 72 degrees and a low of 49. The chance of rain is 10 percent.

Last meeting: Auburn 23, Ole Miss 17, Oct. 28, 2006, in Oxford, Miss.

Prediction: Auburn 34, Ole Miss 10

Ross Dellenger, DAILY sports writer

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