AUBURN, Ala. — On paper, Auburn football should have its most balanced roster under Gus Malzahn in 2017. But each positive aspect of the Tigers roster has a potentially troublesome flip side. Here’s a preview of Auburn’s upcoming season using each position’s biggest reason for confidence and its biggest reason for caution.
The standard offensive formation for Auburn football features three wide receivers, one running back and one “wild card” of sorts. It could be an additional receiver or running back, but it’s usually an H-back or a tight end.
In the Gus Malzahn era, Auburn’s H-backs and tight ends have been almost exclusively blocking specialists. While that’s the H-back’s primary job, the tight ends saw their receiving production fall off a steep cliff following the departure of C.J. Uzomah. Last season, Auburn completed two passes to tight end Jalen Harris. Both were for touchdowns, but it was an underwhelming output.
That’s set to change under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. At Arizona State last season, his tight ends caught six touchdowns. More passes are coming to the Tigers offense, which means a chance at a new kind of impact for Auburn’s H-backs and tight ends.
There are still a lot of moving parts to these interconnected positions, even though the Tigers return their two starters in Harris and H-back Chandler Cox. A new position coach and some new blood from the 2017 signing class should make for an intriguing fall at tight end and H-back.
2017 Auburn football H-backs and tight ends
- Chandler Cox (junior; 6-foot-1, 239 pounds)
- 7 carries for 15 yards and 1 touchdown; 4 receptions for 41 yards in 2016
- Jalen Harris (junior; 6-4, 252)
- 2 catches for 18 yards and 2 touchdowns
- Sal Cannella (sophomore; 6-5, 228)
- John Samuel Shenker (true freshman; 6-3, 235)
- Spencer Nigh (sophomore; 6-0, 270)*
- Caleb King (senior; 6-3, 218)*
- Pete Berryman (junior; 6-3, 221)*
- Keenan Sweeney (junior; 6-0, 237)*
- Robert Muschamp (sophomore; 6-1, 244)*
- Chase Cramer (sophomore; 5-10, 205)*
- Rawlins Cleveland (true freshman; 5-11, 231)*
- Alex Medary (true freshman; 6-0, 186)*
CONFIDENCE: Added depth coming at the perfect time
Lindsey’s arrival brings the promise of more passes to Auburn’s tight ends and H-backs in the 2017 season. That coincides perfectly with the additions of Sal Cannella and John Samuel Shenker. Last fall, Auburn only had two scholarship players at the position in Cox and Harris, who had to be each other’s backup.
Cannella is an intriguing receiving threat at 6-foot-5, and he broke into the rotation in spring practices. Shenker is more of the prototype Auburn wants from the position in the future — more on that later — and he comes with past experience in a Lindsey-esque offense.
Cox and Harris continued to work on their hands during spring practices. Both have been effective blockers, with Harris having a nice sophomore season of work as a hand-in-the-dirt tight end, helping the Tigers find success on the edges.
Blocking will still be the top priority for Auburn’s tight ends and H-backs this fall, but the two juniors won’t have to do it all alone. If Lindsey can find a way to use them effectively in the passing game, this could be the start of an exciting new era for the position.
“I think the future is very bright for the tight end and H-back position here,” new tight ends coach Larry Porter said this spring. “We talk about that productivity of that position here in the past … I’m very excited and happy about the guys we have here on campus. I’m looking forward to kind of adding to that depth.”
CAUTION: Still a work in progress
One of the hallmarks of Lindsey’s offense is a player who can do it all at these two positions — stay in the backfield as an H-back, put his hand in the ground as a tight end and even flex out wide as a receiver. That versatility allows the offense to work in a drive without having to stop for substitutions, which allows the defense to catch its collective breath.
That’s the dream, and Auburn believes Shenker can make that happen down the road. However, the Tigers have a crew of specialists at the position right now. Cox is a natural fullback, Harris is primarily a block-first tight end, and Cannella might be a better fit as a split-out receiver more than tight end or H-back.
“I think the more versatile we can be with our tight ends and development and let those guys work at the different spots, I only think it’s going to help us,” Lindsey said this spring.
Auburn cross-trained Cox, Harris and Cannella at the different roles this spring. The Tigers will want to round out their games as much as possible. But that’s not an easy task, especially with a new position coach, a new offense and — in the case of Cox and Harris — multiple years of experience at one role.
If one of these players can step up and be that all-around threat Auburn wants at the position this fall, then the Tigers will be ahead of schedule. However, this will most likely be a transitional year for a position that should grow in influence as long as Lindsey is on staff.