AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football lists Sal Cannella as a tight end on its roster. But when the sophomore took the field for the first time in the Tigers’ spring game last weekend, he lined up as a big slot receiver.
That continued for the rest of the annual scrimmage. Cannella never lined up in a traditional hand-in-the-dirt tight end position. On every one of his snaps, he was split out wide.
For new Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, the 6-foot-5 Cannella can be more to the Tigers than a standard tight end. Right now, Auburn wants Cannella growing into a role once held by former tight end C.J. Uzomah, who now plays on Sundays for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals.
“He’s catching on really well,” Lindsey said. “He’s in that rotation of playing that wide receiver/tight end, similar to what C.J. did when he was here. He has done well.”
Cannella played wide receiver in high school, but he developed into the No. 2 JUCO tight end last year at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College. The Tigers added him to their 2017 recruiting class because of what he could bring as a pass-catching threat — something tight ends haven’t been much of in Auburn since Uzomah.
“Sal is definitely a playmaker that can move,” senior wide receiver Jason Smith said. “He’s versatile enough to move outside and get in the box and block, too. He can high-point the ball. He’s definitely a red-zone threat.”
However, Cannella is still relatively new to the tight end position, at least in Auburn’s traditional sense of the word.
FERG’S FILM ROOM: Breaking down debuts of Chip Lindsey, Jarrett Stidham
New tight ends coach Larry Porter said Cannella worked hard this spring at becoming a weapon who could attach to the Auburn offensive line.
“We understand his skillset as a receiver when he’s detached, but the biggest thing was when we first put his hand in the dirt, I wanted to see if he’d hit you and fight you,” Porter said. “We knew his technique and fundamentals were not going to be perfect, and that’s exactly what he did. He fought. He strained.”
During the spring game, Auburn gave its first-team tight end reps to junior Jalen Harris, the projected starter at the position. But Cannella suited up in a blue jersey with the rest of the starters, rotating as a detached receiver.
Uzomah became a valuable weapon for Auburn during the 2013 and 2014 seasons thanks to a similar level of versatility. The former tight end caught a game-winning touchdown against Mississippi State in 2013 from an outside receiver position:
Auburn’s coaching staff sees that potential in Cannella, too.
“His skill set gives us an opportunity to do a lot of different things with him,” Porter said. “But again, you’re talking about a guy that comes to work every single day to get better. When I see him, he has his playbook in his hand, he’s always kind of searching for knowledge. I’ve liked his attitude.”
More work at the traditional tight end position will come for Cannella, although he hasn’t practiced much as a lead-blocking H-back. Porter wants the Illinois native to put on more weight to his 6-foot-5 frame this offseason.
But in terms of attitude and willingness to play multiple spots, Cannella has made a strong first impression on his new team.
“He’s a natural ball catcher, natural route runner and (he’s) getting better at being physical at the tight end spot,” Lindsey said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him out there.”