IT WAS a two-week experiment which stuck in Luke Beveridge's mind.

In the middle of Aaron Naughton's first season at the Western Bulldogs in 2018, the premiership coach sent his emerging key defender for a short stint in attack.

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Naughton's two-goal round 14 performance against the Kangaroos was solid, but the next week he gathered only seven touches against Geelong and was held goalless. He thought his time in attack was done. 

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"I didn't get near it, so there wasn't too much of a discussion after that and I settled back into the backline," Naughton told AFL.com.au this week.

But something had caught Beveridge's eye. Now, it's the masterstroke which has seen Naughton become one of the game's best key forwards – a game-changing, pack-splitting, mark-grabbing match-winner at just 20 years old.

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Last week's haul of six goals in the Bulldogs' thumping win over the Crows was a career-high for Naughton, who was drafted to the club with pick No.9 in 2017 as a key defender.

But it was that glimpse in his debut season that led to the Dogs' positional switch, and then to one of the game's best monikers – the 'AstroNaught' for his high-flying feats.

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"It was a bit of a shock when 'Bevo' first put me forward. Coming into the next pre-season I trained as a defender the whole time and played the first Marsh Community Series game as a defender, and then during that week 'Bevo' asked me to come and have a meeting," Naughton remembered.

"He spoke me through it and said 'Are you willing to play forward? I think that's what we need for the team' and I was obviously happy to. Ever since then I haven't looked back, and that's where I play now."

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Playing forward permanently had never been Naughton's go, even as a junior. Sometimes he would drift there as the contest wore on, but he would always start games at centre-half back.

Last year – and one game in particular – changed that. Naughton booted 32 goals from 23 games for the Dogs and led their goalkicking, with his five-goal and 14-mark game against Richmond in round seven wowing the football world.

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As he manhandled and jumped all over the eventual premiers' defence, Naughton announced himself. Along with it came a new level of hype.

"You probably do get a lot more recognised as a forward than as a defender," he said.

"I noticed that last year as soon as I swung up forward, there was a lot more talk about you and a few more people know who you are. 

"But I'm all comfortable with that, I just focus on playing my game and my role for the team in creating contests up forward and bringing everyone else into the game."

That attention came at schools and NAB AFL Auskick clinics, too, where the 'AstroNaught' tag took flight.

"It's not the worst nickname. To have all the little kids run around and call you that is not too bad," Naughton said.

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But Naughton has been grounded more than he – and the Bulldogs – would have hoped this season.

Following his knee injury in last year's elimination final loss to Greater Western Sydney, Naughton was booked in for surgery on his opposite knee in February to clean up loose cartilage.

Naughton made it back in time for the Bulldogs' round one shocker against Collingwood, before the COVID-19 shutdown of the competition gave him more rest time.

He played in the Dogs' next three games when the season resumed before suffering a syndesmosis injury to his ankle against Sydney in round four. That made for a seven-week layoff as he worked alongside fellow syndesmosis sufferers Josh Dunkley and Lin Jong at the Dogs.

He required surgery – the others didn't – which made for some tougher earlier days while recovering.



"I had it elevated for the first week and then from there you can get your foot out of the little cast and from there you start to weight bear," he said.

"It was painful at the start but you get it back pretty quickly. It's amazing, you go from sitting up in bed with your leg in the air all day icing to, a week later, weight-bearing on crutches, then a week later ditching the crutches. It does come along pretty quickly."

So, too, did recapturing his form.

After a quiet return in the Dogs' defeat to Brisbane, Naughton burst out of the blocks with goals from his first six kicks to demolish the Crows.

Naughton credited the Bulldogs' midfield for his bag of goals. But with his marking power, intensity at ground level and defensive work also lifting a notch, he also made things happen.

As Melbourne prepares to stop the Bulldogs in Saturday's important clash for a top-eight spot, quelling Naughton looms as one of the Demons' toughest tasks.

"Obviously marking is one of my strengths and it is something that I'll always be confident and able to do, but it's more those defensive actions that I focus on. If I know I'm doing them well, I know I'll be having a decent day," he said.

"It's the most goals I've kicked in a game so that's something that is a good result out of it, but I think there's plenty of more opportunities to come. Hopefully over the years I'll be able to kick a few more goals, so that's something to look forward to."