It feels like the tight end position has been a point of debate ever since C.J. Uzomah took his talents to the NFL following the 2014 season.
From 2009-14 — spanning Gus Malzahn’s three years as offensive coordinator and first two seasons as head coach with the 2012 campaign in between — tight ends at Auburn combined to catch 107 passes for 1,266 yards and 24 touchdowns. In the three seasons since, tight ends have caught just six passes for 52 yards and two scores.
Whether that will change anytime soon remains to be seen. For now, here’s a look at what we know and don’t know about Auburn’s tight ends as the 2018 season approaches:
Jalen Harris (Sr.), Sal Cannella (Jr.), John Samuel Shenker (R-Fr.)
WHAT WE KNOW
What we know is that Auburn does want its tight ends to be more involved in the offense. That’s been the message since Chip Lindsey took over as coordinator prior to the spring of 2017. The fact the Tigers have two tight ends committed in their 2019 recruiting class — three-stars Tyler Fromm (Warner Robins, Ga.) and Luke Deal (Greenwood, S.C.) — proves that commitment is still there.
Of course, that didn’t translate to many catches in 2017. Cannella caught three balls for 31 yards, and Harris one for 5 yards. That is actually an uptick from the past few seasons, though — Auburn’s tight ends caught zero passes in 2015 and just two in 2016.
And Auburn did actually use the tight end more, too. Malzahn said in October of last year that the Tigers lined up with tight ends in the formation more during the 2017 season that it did in either of the two seasons prior. Most of those snaps went to Harris and Tucker Brown (now competing for the starting job at center), who both performed well in blocking capacities.
That continued into this spring, when Malzahn said the Tigers did more tight end work than they have the past few years “by design.”
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What we don’t know is whether that will translate to Cannella, Harris and Shenker making an impact on the box score in terms of catches this season. Auburn’s tight ends have only six receptions over the past three years, but it’s not as if they haven’t been a factor before — Philip Lutzenkirchen caught 44 passes for 489 yards and 14 touchdowns when Malzahn was offensive coordinator from 2009-11, and Uzomah caught 22 balls for 299 yards and six scores between the 2013 and 2014 seasons.
The reason for the lack of involvement since then might simply be personnel. Of the seven tight ends Auburn has signed since 2014 — Jakell Mitchell, Chris Laye, Hunter Wood, Harris, Landon Rice, Cannella and Shenker — only Harris has played in more than one season (Cannella is going into his second, and Shenker first after redshirting last season).
But if there ever were a season for Harris, Cannella and Shenker to start catching a few more passes, this could be it. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham has veteran receivers Ryan Davis, Darius Slayton and Nate Craig-Myers back, but ACL injuries suffered by Eli Stove and Will Hastings leave a void. Cannella, now listed as a TE/WR on the Tigers’ roster, spent some time in the slot during spring practice, and Lindsey mentioned him as an option for playing time in place of Hastings. Shenker was a versatile enough player in high school that he caught passes while lined up at tight end, split out wide and at H-back.
In Lindsey’s lone season as the offensive coordinator at Arizona State in 2016, tight ends combined to catch 12 passes for 187 yards and six touchdowns. That position might never be a focal point in Auburn’s passing game, but totals even approaching half of that would count as a huge year on the Plains compared to the last three.
THEY SAID IT
“We've really worked hard with our tight end. I know we've had more tight end work with our hand down than what we've had probably the last few springs. That's been by design.” — Gus Malzahn
There are some shared similarities, responsibilities between Auburn’s tight ends and H-backs. We’ll take a look at what we know and don’t know about Chandler Cox’s position.