AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn wide receiver Tony Stevens saw one play Saturday night that took him back to his high school days.
At some point during the Tigers’ 56-3 rout of Arkansas, Stevens watched teammate Chandler Cox deliver a jarring block that sent a Razorback defender straight into the Jordan-Hare Stadium turf.
Stevens had seen that before, back when Cox was an underclassman at Apopka (Fla.) High School, which was 20 minutes away from Stevens’ alma mater of Evans High School in Orlando.
“I saw one play against Arkansas where he knocked the dude on the ground, and I’m like, ‘Dang. That’s the Apopka Chandler that I know,'” Stevens said.
Over on the sidelines, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee saw the same thing — a sophomore H-back who is starting to turn back the clock as a lead-blocking force for the nation’s No. 3 rushing offense.
“Chandler’s been really physical,” Lashlee said. “The last two games — Mississippi State and Arkansas — he’s played extremely physical. That’s the guy that we recruited in high school.”
That version of Cox hasn’t always been around for the Tigers in 2016. In the first few games, as Auburn struggled offensively, Cox lined up at running back and even quarterback in a rare single-wing formation.
Cox split time between H-back — where he started 10 games as a true freshman in 2015 — and running back during preseason camp to help out with some of the depth issues at the latter position.
His dual-training gave Auburn some more bodies at an important role while the staff tried to figure out what combination worked best out of the backfield. But the less time at H-back cut into his consistency at H-back, where he was responsible for a growing portion of Auburn’s FBS-high negative plays.
“There were times in fall camp when he was working with tailbacks instead of the fundamental aspects of his position,” Lashlee said. “That’s probably not a coincidence that when he was kind of able to hone back in on one position, he’s started improving and playing better.”
When Lashlee took over play-calling duties prior to the LSU game, he started relying on Cox more at H-back. A majority of Lashlee’s play calls in Auburn’s last three games have featured Cox. In that trio of contests, Auburn has rushed for 1,181 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Against Arkansas, Cox laid a key block alongside Stevens for Eli Stove’s 78-yard touchdown run on Auburn’s first offensive snap of the game.
Eli Stove's opening TD run: Arkansas sells out to Pettway, Chandler Cox and Tony Stevens make great blocks, and Bo Jackson loves all of it. pic.twitter.com/GYrwM0zQQF
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 23, 2016
“That is a real key position in our offense that we ask to do a lot of different things,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He is just playing with a physicality like he’s never played with. He’s just really getting plays started at the point of attack on the line of scrimmage, doing a lot of different things even outside the box that’s been good.”
Now that he’s settled into a full-time H-back role again, Cox is expanding his production for the Auburn offense. He caught 3 passes for 26 yards in his last two games, which matches his receiving stats from the entire 2015 season.
Cox’s consistency as a run-blocking specialist has opened up more opportunities for him to catch passes from starting quarterback Sean White out of the backfield.
“It’s no shocker that he starts playing better now that he starts getting a few balls and all that kind of stuff,” Lashlee said. “Again, when that position is playing well and is productive — even if they’re not catching a lot a of balls — but he’s being productive at his position, that makes our running game go, kind of like Jay (Prosch) did back in 2013.”
Prosch, who now plays for the Houston Texans in the NFL, was a lynchpin to Auburn’s massive success on the ground in the 2013 season.
The Tigers rushed for an average of 328.29 yards per game that year. Through the first seven games of 2016, Auburn is at 302.86 rushing yards per game — meaning the offense is on pace to average 300-plus yards on the ground for the first time since that SEC championship season.
Cox’s improvement at the position has gone a long way in that recent rushing resurgence. And there’s no doubt the coaching staff ranks Cox highly in terms of importance to the offense and the team as a whole.
“He’s one of our best football players,” Malzahn said.