AUBURN, Ala. — Welcome to a special edition of Ferg’s Film Room here on SEC Country. Every Monday afternoon, there’s usually a breakdown here of the previous weekend’s Auburn football action. In Week 7, though, the Tigers were off.
But that’s not going to close down the Film Room. Today, here’s a midseason total of several of the biggest tracked Film Room numbers from the first six games of the season — offensive formations, quarterback passing charts, wide receiver targets, linebacker pairings and cornerback targets.
So, this week, let’s trade the video clips for some tables and find trends for the first half of Auburn’s 2016 season. As always, these are unofficial snap counts and totals from review of game broadcasts.
Offensive Strategy: Gus Malzahn vs. Rhett Lashlee
When Gus Malzahn handed play-calling duties to Rhett Lashlee ahead of a Week 4 matchup with LSU, the results started to change for Auburn. The Tigers are 3-0 since the switch, and the offense has executed better as a whole both between the 20s and inside the red zone.
Lashlee didn’t completely reinvent the Auburn offense over the last three games, but there have been several noticeable changes, such as passing more on first and second downs. The biggest changes, though, have been in the simplified formations and higher use of H-backs and tight ends compared to Malzahn in the 1-2 start.
Of Auburn’s 478 offensive snaps this season, I have formation data for 448 of them. It’s not the complete set, but it’s a large sample size of what Auburn has done offensively in 2016.
Here are the formations Malzahn used when he called plays vs. the ones Lashlee has used:
|3 WR – 1 RB – 1 HB (gun)||83||97||180|
|4 WR – 1 RB||109||47||156|
|3 WR – 1 RB – 1 TE||6||15||21|
|2 WR – 1 RB- 1 HB – 1 TE||4||12||16|
|2 WR – 1 RB – 1 HB – 6 OL||0||13||13|
|3 WR – 1 RB – 1 HB (pistol)||11||1||12|
|4 WR – 1 HB||4||5||9|
|Single Wing (gun)||8||0||8|
|3 WR – 1 RB – 6 OL||1||6||7|
|3 WR – 1 HB – 6 OL (gun)||5||0||5|
|3 WR – 1 RB – 1 HB (under center)||0||5||5|
|Single Wing (under center)||4||0||4|
|3 WR – 2 HB||3||0||3|
|1 WR – 1 RB – 2 HB – 6 OL||2||0||2|
|2 WR – 1 RB – 2 HB||1||0||1|
Two major things jump out in this side-by-side comparison. First, Malzahn relied heavily on the 4-wide receiver set early in the season. He used it 38 times against Arkansas State and 49 against Texas A&M. But since Lashlee has taken over, the formation hasn’t been used more than 19 times in a single game. Lashlee tends to go with more traditional Malzahn sets that have an H-back or a tight end.
Second, Lashlee has used a smaller number of total formations (10) than Malzahn (14). As he explained it Sunday night, the game plans have tightened in the last three games because the coaching staff has more information on what this offensive personnel can do well.
“We’ve kind of learned our guys a little bit and maybe what we can and can’t do,” Lashlee said. “I don’t want to say ‘simplify,’ because we still have our whole playbook, but we’ve tried to be able to simplify game plans — knowing what we’re good at and rep those maybe more.”
With Chandler Cox and Jalen Harris becoming more consistent in their blocking, expect to see this trend continue into the second half of the season. Even with one fewer receiver, Lashlee is getting the production he wants out of starting quarterback Sean White.
Passing Game: The increasing efficiency of Sean White
White completed less than half of his passes (10 for 21) in Week 1 against Clemson. Since then, he’s completed at least two-third of his attempts in every game for the Tigers.
Heading into Week 8 against Arkansas, White has completed 69.7 percent of his passes, which is good enough for 9th nationally among qualified FBS passers. Auburn has only had one starting Malzahn quarterback finish a season with a completion percentage better than 60 percent — Cam Newton (66.1) in 2010.
|TOTALS||92 (69.7%)||29 (22%)||11 (8.3%)|
What’s even more impressive about White’s accuracy this season is that he has two major areas that could be improved — deep ball consistency and drops from his wide receivers. White has a tendency to miss on a couple of big plays each game. If he can tighten that area of his game in the second half of the season, his numbers could explode.
Auburn has dropped 11 of White’s 29 incompletions this season. If his receivers would have caught just five of those attempts, White would lead the nation in completion percentage. Fortunately for him and the offense as a whole, Auburn’s receivers have only had three drops in the last three games after eight in the first three.
The Tigers have had great success this season with White in passing the ball on first and second down — especially the latter. In his down splits, White has thrown the majority of his yards, touchdowns, first downs and explosive plays on second down. Almost half of his attempts on second down move the chains.
As for White’s receivers, there’s a clear go-to target through six games and several freshmen who have emerged as big-play targets whenever they get their chances.
Here are the targets, receptions, drops, catch rates and yardage information for Auburn’s nine receivers who have made catches in 2016:
Several of Auburn’s underclassman receivers have the most reliable hands on the roster this season. Kyle Davis and Slayton are doing the best at generating big plays on their targets, and all those quick passes to Ryan Davis rarely go for anything but positive yardage.
Seniors Tony Stevens and a healthier Marcus Davis will continue to lead the way in the second half of the season, but that youth movement should grow as well. Davis, Slayton and Nate Craig-Myers are good candidates to get more deep-ball chances from White.
Defensive Front: Lining up the linebackers
Auburn has lined up in the base 4-2-5 defense in at least 75 percent of its 412 snaps this season. Sixty-three of the tracked defensive snaps through first six games of 2016 feature the 4-1-6 dime package, and the Tigers used a 4-3 scheme on approximately 30 plays.
At the halfway point of the season, two first-team linebacker combinations have exactly the same amount of snaps in the 4-2-5 system — and they both include sophomore Deshaun Davis.
While an early injury against Mississippi State cut down his play count, Davis leads the way in snaps for Auburn’s much-improved linebacker corps in 2016. At one point in the season, he took over the lone linebacker role in the 4-1-6 dime package (26 snaps) from junior Tre’ Williams, but the older veteran has more snaps (37) there because of his start to the season and his return to the spot against Mississippi State.
Past the main rotation of Davis, Tre’ Williams and sophomore Darrell Williams, the snap counts drop in non-garbage-time scenarios. Montavious Atkinson has been the first linebacker off the bench, mostly pairing with Davis and Tre’ Williams in 2016.
Here are the 4-2-5 linebacker combinations for Auburn through the first six games of the season:
|Deshaun Davis + Darrell Williams||97|
|Deshaun Davis + Tre’ Williams||97|
|Darrell Williams + Tre’ Williams||61|
|Tre’ Williams + Montavious Atkinson||18|
|Darrell Williams + T.J. Neal||12|
|Montavious Atkinson + Tre Threat||10|
|Deshaun Davis + Montavious Atkinson||6|
|Montavious Atkinson + T.J. Neal||5|
|Tre’ Williams + T.J. Neal||4|
Secondary: Dissecting targets in 1-on-1 coverage
After making solid improvements in 2015 under Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson, Auburn’s secondary has continued to move forward this fall under Kevin Steele and Wesley McGriff. The Tigers are tied for 18th nationally in fewest yards allowed per attempt (6.0) and 25th in opponent QB rating (112.78).
Auburn has done a good job in preventing explosive plays in the passing game — 15th nationally with 40 allowed passes of 10-plus yards — with an experienced safety group protecting the top of the coverage. But the biggest changes have come in the improvement of the cornerbacks and nickel back Rudy Ford in 1-on-1 coverage.
The Tigers are 10th in the FBS in pass breakups this season, which has made up for the deficiencies in generating interceptions in 2016. A lot of those are attributed to sophomore cornerback Carlton Davis, who has allowed 37 or fewer passing yards in every game since a tough night against Clemson in Week 1.
Here is a breakdown of how often Auburn’s top three cornerbacks — and Ford — have been targeted in man coverage this season and how much yardage they’ve allowed. This is just a piece of the attempts Auburn’s pass defense has faced this season and doesn’t include plays such as passes to backs or quick screens and swings.
With that in mind, here’s how Auburn’s corners are performing this season:
Ford’s low yards per target can be somewhat attributed to the short-yardage slot receiver routes he normally covers in the nickel position, but he still has the best success rate of any defensive back on the roster.
Josh Holsey’s strong performances in his return from injury — he’s had three different games this season in which he’s allowed 5 yards, 0 yards and 0 yards in coverage — and Javaris Davis’ production off the bench is quite an encouragement for this Auburn defense. They’ve combined for a stingy pass defense with the safeties.