AUBURN, Ala. — The arrival of Chip Lindsey as Auburn football’s new offensive coordinator and Jarrett Stidham as the new quarterback has generated plenty of buzz about the Tigers passing game.
But Gus Malzahn says an underused area of Auburn’s offense could see the biggest change in 2017.
“That might be the biggest difference you see offensively — utilizing the tight ends and H-backs and getting those guys more involved,” Auburn’s coach said at SEC Media Days.
Those are strong words for an Auburn offense that has been dominated by quarterback talk this offseason. They’re even stronger considering the Tigers completed only 2 passes to tight ends in 2016.
Junior Jalen Harris caught a wide-open touchdown pass against Ole Miss in the gadget “Fight Song” formation. The final play of the Sugar Bowl was a consolation jump pass to Harris — also for a touchdown — from Jeremy Johnson.
Other than that, Harris was used primarily as a blocking specialist, most of the time appearing whenever starting H-back Chandler Cox wasn’t on the field.
But Lindsey’s offenses at Southern Miss and Arizona State threw more balls to the tight end, especially in prime scoring situations. At Arizona State in 2016, Lindsey’s tight ends were responsible for six of the Sun Devils 16 receiving touchdowns.
“At the end of the day, you build an offense around your playmakers, and if your tight ends are in your top three-to-five playmakers, they’re going to catch balls,” Lindsey said this spring. “That’s the way it works.”
Auburn could have a top playmaker at the position in 2017.
Harris stood out to coaches with his development as a receiver in spring practices, and 6-foot-5 JUCO transfer Sal Cannella got rave reviews for his hands and catch radius. Incoming freshman John Samuel Shenker is the prototype of the Tigers’ future at the position.
“Jalen Harris has really come on,” Malzahn said. “Sal Cannella is a guy who really impressed us. So Chip is going to use the tight end more.”
The 2017 season will be Year 1 of a new experiment Auburn uses at tight end, a position that hasn’t had a consistent playmaker since C.J. Uzomah’s departure after the 2014 season.
In Lindsey’s offense, Auburn wants a player who can seamlessly switch from Cox’s favored H-back position to tight end and even slot receiver. That allows the Tigers to call their full range of plays without substituting, which could speed up the game’s tempo.
Lindsey is joined in those efforts by Larry Porter, Auburn’s new recruiting coordinator who inherited the tight ends and H-backs coach role from the departing Scott Fountain. Both aspects of Porter’s position will be instrumental in getting the tight end position where the Tigers want it to be.
“We’re going to do that through development, and we’re going to do that through recruiting as well,” Porter said this spring. “I think we put both of those together, I think the future is very bright for the tight end and H-back position here.”
But how much will that emphasis show up this season? An Auburn tight end hasn’t caught more than 20 passes in a season since the late Philip Lutzenkirchen in 2011.
Porter said the Tigers could exceed that this fall, and it won’t require drastic changes.
“Coach Lindsey is going to give them an opportunity to catch more balls,” Porter said. “I researched the top tight ends in the SEC in terms of catches and yardage, and I also looked at the top tight ends in the NFL draft or the ones at the combine. When you get 36 to 40, that’s on the high end of what you get in a year.
“That’s about three a game. That’s not a hard thing to do. It’s a responsibility of ours as coaches to put the ball in the hands of our playmakers. It’s also the responsibility of the players to put themselves in a position where the coach knows they can be productive with the ball.”
That doesn’t mean Auburn’s tight ends will become pass-only weapons. With the increased use of 3-4 defenses in the SEC, Malzahn said the Tigers will use tight ends as run-blockers more than in the past.
Together with the revamped passing attack, Malzahn makes it sound as if 2017 could be a banner year for Auburn tight ends.
“You see so many more odd fronts,” Malzahn said. “So running the football, you’re definitely going to need that. … You’ll see Chip utilize those guys more differently than we have in the past.”