AUBURN, Ala. — The last time Auburn beat Mississippi State, it used a play that seems to be a lost relic of the Gus Malzahn offense.
In 2013, Auburn trailed Mississippi State at home by 3 with 15 seconds remaining. Tight end C.J. Uzomah split out wide, got enough separation on a Nick Marshall pump fake and reached up for a game-winning touchdown grab.
After the touchdown grab, Auburn Sports Network color commentator Stan White said he saw Uzomah’s big impact against the Bulldogs coming in his pregame analysis.
“I told (Auburn Sports Network host) Paul Ellen pregame: C.J. Uzomah will be involved in this passing game,” White said. “Well, he makes the biggest catch of his Auburn career to take Auburn up 23-20, extra point pending!”
White’s prediction would be out-of-place in a 2016 broadcast.
An Auburn tight end being involved in the passing game? Auburn hasn’t completed a single pass to a tight end in 18 straight games, dating back to Uzomah’s last one as a Tiger — the Outback Bowl at the end of the 2014 season.
Tight end use in the Auburn air attack started fading even before Uzomah left the Plains for the NFL. Uzomah’s touchdown catch against Mississippi State in 2013 gave him 48 receiving yards on the night. That game is the last time an Auburn tight end had 40 or more yards in a single contest.
It hasn’t always been this way for tight ends in Gus Malzahn’s offense. While it’s never been a primary, go-to position in the passing game, it has been a valuable weapon in terms of touchdowns since Malzahn made the jump to the college ranks in 2006:
|YEAR||SCHOOL (JOB)||TE REC||TE YDS||TE TDs|
|2012||Arkansas State (HC)||14||200||3|
While an Auburn tight end hasn’t made a single catch this season, the position hasn’t completely vanished from the offense. The Tigers still use a tight end in spots, and they’re going after several recruits there for the class of 2017.
However, the Tigers’ lack of passes toward tight ends is noticeable for one of their targets at the position.
Adam Boselli, a 3-star prospect from Florida and the son of former 5-time NFL Pro Bowl offensive lineman Tony Boselli, is more of the receiving type of tight end than a traditional blocker. He hasn’t received an offer yet from Auburn, but he unofficially visited for the Arkansas State game.
“That’s kind of one thing, I don’t want to say question, but they use (the tight end) much different,” Boselli told SEC Country. “They definitely utilize it, but I don’t know if they utilize it in the passing game as much as I’d like … I’ve noticed they’re using it less this year than normal.”
Of Auburn’s 385 offensive plays that have been tracked in Ferg’s Film Room this year, only 22 of them used a traditional tight end.
That’s a small percentage, but it could grow as Auburn gets deeper into the season and faces more odd-man defensive fronts. Auburn used a tight end a season-high seven times in its win over LSU, which now runs 3-4 defense under new coordinator Dave Aranda.
“(LSU) plays a lot more odd front than they’ve played in the past,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sept. 28. “Jalen Harris, Chandler Cox, those guys need to be impact guys for us. They know, just like every position, that there’s room for improvement there. That’s been a big emphasis this week, because we’re going to have to do that this season more and more.”
Almost all of the plays in which Auburn has used a tight end this season have been running calls. The only time an Auburn tight end has been targeted in the passing game in 2016 is when Cox lined up at the position on a third-and-short play against Clemson. Cox ran a delayed drag route before getting overthrown by Sean White on a possible touchdown.
Since Uzomah and Brandon Fulse left Auburn after the 2014 season, no Auburn tight end has recorded a catch.
Auburn entered the 2015 season with several newcomers to the H-back and tight end roles that share a spot on the two-deep depth chart. (Tragically, tight end Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed in December 2014 after sitting out his freshman season with a redshirt.) The Tigers used true freshmen Cox and Kamryn Pettway at H-back last year while fellow true freshman Harris and redshirt freshman Chris Laye rotated at tight end.
Laye left the program before spring practice. Cox worked more in the preseason at running back, taking away from his H-back and occasional tight end reps. True freshman tight end Landon Rice, who was accused of first-degree rape, left the team in September.
By the third week of the 2016 season, Auburn was down to just one scholarship tight end in Harris, who is starting to grow as the lone contributor at the position.
“He’s getting better every week,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “He played very well (against Louisiana-Monroe) — matter of fact, this whole year. When he’s been in there, he’s done some very good things, and it’s starting to click for him. He was very physical last week, and he’s in a good spot.”
Is that drastic change in personnel the reason for the disappearance in passing game opportunities for Auburn’s tight ends in the last two seasons — or is it more of a change in strategy from Malzahn and Lashlee?
“It could be a little bit of personnel over time,” Lashlee said earlier this week. “And then sometimes it’s matter of who you’re playing — what formations you’re going to be in are based on what they do, so that’s a little bit of a week-to-week deal.”
This week, when Auburn looks for its first victory over Mississippi State since Uzomah’s game-winning catch more than three years ago, could be the right time for the Tigers to go back to the tight end.
Under first-year defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon, Mississippi State utilizes a 3-4 defense that has three traditional defensive linemen and what Sirmon calls a “Viper” — an outside linebacker whose primary job is to rush the passer.
It’s the matchup Auburn is looking for when it wants to use the tight end, and it comes at the ideal time for a Tigers offense looking for more production in the red zone against Power 5 defenses.
“That’s a weapon that we need to have available, and that’s a part of our offense,” Lashlee said. “It helped us against LSU, being able to play with a tight end more … It changes things. It expands things in the running game and the passing game. We’ve had success in the past with tight ends, especially inside the red zone, so it’d be huge for us.”
The 6-foot-4, 259-pound Harris had a solid high school career as a 3-star tight end prospect at St. James in Montgomery, Ala., where he established a close relationship with the late Philip Lutzenkirchen.
The former Auburn Tiger is the most productive tight end Malzahn has ever had in college with 12 touchdowns in 2010 and 2011, including his famous go-ahead score in the 2010 Iron Bowl.
If the Tigers decide to throw it Harris’ way in the red zone — much like they used to do with his late mentor — they are confident he can make the big play despite his lack of receiving so far at Auburn.
“I definitely trust Jalen,” White said Tuesday. “He’s a young kid, but he’s grown up so much since he first got here. He’s blocking so much better. That’s always the toughest thing for a young tight end is to be able to be physical enough to block and handle those SEC defensive linemen … He could definitely help us in the red zone as the season goes along.”
Malzahn, in his usual guarded way when talking to reporters about strategy, gave a similar message when asked about the tight end position that used to be a true scoring weapon in his passing offense.
“Well, you know, that’s one of the things that we’re evaluating, and we started really last week in the red zone,” Malzahn said. “We were effective last week, but we got to keep building upon that. That’s like I said, it’s either or scheme or personnel.
“Each week you’ll see some different things. It could be a possibility down the road.”
Now the question is if that road is one that goes to Starkville.