Gus Malzahn is going into his sixth season as Auburn’s head coach. Chandler Cox is going into his fourth as the Tigers’ starter at H-back.
It’s not the flashiest position on an offense that averaged nearly 34 points per game last season, but it is an important one, and the senior out of Apopka, Fla., is its face. So much so that he was a healthy scratch on A-Day — Auburn already knows exactly what it has in him.
“I don't know if we've had a four year starter at that position, so he's like a coach on the field,” Malzahn said this spring. “Just his versatility with the different things he can do.”
Here’s a closer look at we know and don’t know about Cox and the rest of the Tigers’ H-backs:
Chandler Cox (Sr.), Spencer Nigh (Jr.), Chase Cramer (Jr.), Robert Muschamp (Jr.)
WHAT WE KNOW
What we know is that this is Cox’s position. He’s been the starter at H-back in each of the last three seasons, and he will be again this year with no other scholarship player listed on the roster with him. He’s also one of the team’s most vocal leaders.
Cox has grown in the role, too. His blocking seems to have improved every season he’s played, and while he doesn’t carry the ball much — eight for 15 yards in his career, one for no gain last season — his receiving totals continue to increase. He caught three passes for 25 yards as a freshman in 2015, four for 41 as a sophomore in 2016 and eight for 78 as a junior last season.
The 6-foot-1, 242-pound senior should again serve as the primary lead blocker out of the backfield in the run game, but he could also take on a somewhat increased role in a young backfield that lost a ton of experience and production when Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway left early for the NFL. Cox took some handoffs during spring practice (though no more than usual), and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey mentioned him as a possibility to run Auburn’s Wildcat sets this season.
“This is my last year, and I’m just going to give everything I can to this program, to coach (Larry) Porter, to coach Malzahn,” Cox said this spring. “I’m just trying to enjoy each day at a time and trying to focus on the little things this year.”
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What we don’t know is what exactly Auburn has behind (or after) Cox. That may be a question for another day, given that the senior is going into his final season as the starter. But it’s never too early to start thinking about the future in college football.
Cox’s primary backup last season, Nigh, appeared in 10 games as a reserve and did not rack up any counting stats. Keenan Sweeney appeared in six, but he announced in May that he would be leaving Auburn to join his father’s alma mater, Notre Dame, as a graduate transfer. Cramer and Muschamp (who is listed on the roster as a linebacker) did not appear in a game last season.
The more likely options to play H-back when Cox isn’t are tight ends Jalen Harris and John Samuel Shenker, who both took reps at that spot during spring practice. Harris is also a senior, but Shenker is a redshirt freshman and could be a candidate to play there more in the future after playing tight end and H-back for coach Rush Propst — Lindsey’s former boss at Hoover — at Colquitt County High.
Harold Joiner could also eventually get some snaps there, as Auburn sees the true freshman running back fitting into a hybrid running back/H-back/tight end mold similar to the one Charles Clay played at Tulsa when Malzahn was offensive coordinator. The future NFL tight end caught 97 passes for 1,488 yards and 16 touchdowns and carried 82 times for 449 yards and three more scores in two seasons (2007-08).
THEY SAID IT
“This is the last year, and I have to take my leadership to the next level. It’s mine and the seniors’ team, and I told some of these seniors, they’re going to remember our class and what we do this year. That’s something that’s special to me. It’s always been part of me to be a leader here. I tried to lead as a freshman, as a sophomore, as a junior, but now it’s real because I’ve got all the young guys looking at me and the seniors. It’s important. It’s important for us to take the next step.” — Chandler Cox
Johnson and Pettway are gone, and the battle to replace them as the lead back rages on. We take a look at what we know and don’t know about Auburn’s running backs.