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Auburn's Offense Takes Shape As Some Players Take On New Roles

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Jeremy Johnson, Melvin Ray, Chandler Cox, and Robert Leff all made themselves useful in new ways against Kentucky.

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Five whole days ago, Auburn beat Kentucky 30-27 in its sixth game of the season. Each of the five games prior, at least one starter was a new starter. After all, the quarterbacks changed, the running back position took a while to sort out, we have two good but young H-backs, and that's just the offense. But it seems the starting lineup has finally fallen into place.

That doesn't mean new players didn't contribute. Receivers Marcus Davis, Stanton Truitt, and Tony Stevens all got more playing time without Duke Williams on the team.

And that doesn't mean that everyone's roles are fully defined. In fact, there is clearly some tinkering to be done. And Thursday night in Lexington, boy did Auburn do some tinkering.

For example, Melvin Ray lined up in a traditional tight end position at least twice in the first half. (I haven't rewatched the second half yet). Both times he ran routes rather than block and he wasn't targeted, but that's something to look for in the future.

Others were used in new ways to much more effect.

Jeremy Johnson, speed sweep guy?

The last five plays of Auburn's second drive (seven plays, 59 yards) all included pre-snap motion and Kentucky reacted to it the same way nearly every time. When a receiver ran through the backfield, whether to simply swap sides or to fake a sweep, a defender chased him across the formation.

The Tigers tried to take advantage of that on 2nd & Goal by motioning Chandler Cox into the backfield from the right only to release him on a passing route back to the right. I think the hope was that a defender would follow him inside and then get crossed up trying to back track. Unfortunately, no one chased the H-back like they had the receivers in previous plays and Cox didn't get open.

So on 3rd & Goal, Auburn lined up in the Wildcat formation and sent "receiver" Jeremy Johnson in motion behind Kerryon Johnson. Yes, I took a brief look at this play a few days ago. Sorry, but I'm doing it again.

The Kentucky defender manned up with Jeremy follows him across the formation and suddenly the Wildcats are outflanked. All the Tigers have to do is block to the inside. The safety, who is the last man to the outside, does a nice job of getting back outside and forcing Kerryon to run back inside, but Braden Smith handles him and every other block inside is executed perfectly.

Robert Leff, tight end or tackle?

Remember Robert Leff, the mystery offensive lineman? I first noticed him in the San Jose State game, and, though his official number is 70, he wears 98 when he comes in as a BIG tight end, basically giving the Tigers a sixth offensive lineman. Against the Spartans, he was used only in the Wildcat plays, but he saw his role expand in Lexington.

In 2013, Auburn occasionally brought Shon Coleman in as a sixth lineman. In 2014, Braden Smith had the honor. This year, it's Robert Leff's turn.

But the way Auburn is using Leff is different in two ways. First, he's getting A LOT of playing time. In the first half, not including the last drive which was mostly passing to set up a long field goal, Leff was on the field for 22 out of 43 plays. And, no, Auburn wasn't running the Wildcat most of the time. Kerryon only took a direct snap four times. Leff was on the field for 18 "standard" plays.

Now, if Auburn has both starting tackles Shon Coleman and Avery Young on one side of the ball, you would think the run would always follow behind them. Auburn certainly took advantage of the extra size and strength to the right, but it wasn't afraid to run behind Leff and left guard Alex Kozan too. And a few times, Leff played like a typical tight end with Coleman and Young at their normal left and right tackle positions.

One example of running behind Leff and Kozan came in the second quarter. Auburn ran a version of Counter, one of Malzahn's base plays, but with jet sweep motion toward the play side. This motion is helpful because it forces the defense's end man to widen out in case the ball is handed off on the sweep.With that end man out wide, he is an easy target for Braden Smith's kick out. Now the gap Petyon Barber needs to run through is wide open for H-back Kamryn Pettway to lead block through.

All of that is nice, but what caught my eye was that the play went the opposite direction a defense would think it would. Coleman and Young are both to the right, but they both hinge step and absorb the rush to the right. They really just have to prevent immediate penetration as the lineman rush up field and take themselves out of the play. Instead, it's Leff and Kozan who do the dirty work. They double team a defensive end, with Leff shoving him four yards down field, and while Kozan sticks with that assignment, Leff turns around and finds another defender to harass. By "finding work", Leff added about five yards to this run and turned it into a first down.

Chandler Cox, wide receiver?

Freshman Chandler Cox had quite a spring with a nice catch in the A-Day game and a touchdown catch during closed practices, but he's had some growing pains as a fullback-type blocker in Malzahn's power running game.

Against the Wildcats, Malzahn started putting Cox out wide more and though he didn't catch a pass, he drew the attention of defenders away from other play makers for two big pass plays in the first quarter. (I think. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on with the broadcast view of the play.)

In the second quarter, Auburn broke out a new run-pass option play (RPO). As Auburn fans, I'm sure you've heard about RPO's (also known as packaged plays) and how evil they are and how they're ruining the game. (Kidding.) The Tigers have previously packaged the inside zone read with either a bubble screen or a late hitch/curl route.

This time, the Tigers stuck a modified tunnel screen to the backside of the zone read. (I say modified because a typical tunnel screen would use offensive lineman instead of wide receivers as blockers. See Sammie Coates' 2013 touchdown against Texas A&M for an example.)

The first time Auburn used the play, Sean White threw the screen. When Barber motions from outside to the backfield, Kentucky leaves only two defenders to cover three receivers out wide. The outermost receiver, Marcus Davis, takes a big step forward and then turns back toward the quarterback. At the same time, Melvin Ray blocks his man and Chandler Cox wheels out and does the same. This opens up an alley or a "tunnel" between the sideline and the rest of the players for Davis to run through.

On the very next play, the corner playing Tony Stevens is seven yards from the line of scrimmage and retreats as soon as the ball is snapped, so White takes the easy seven yards.

Auburn runs the RPO one more time, only mirrored. This time, the screen is defended by three Wildcats, so White runs the zone read. With the end man on the backside crashing inside, he correctly keeps the ball and runs toward his three receivers. What's neat about this play is that two of those receivers are already blocking for him and once Davis sees that White is keeping it, he runs downfield to get in the way of the deep safety.

Gus Malzahn has said over the last few weeks that he thinks the team is getting better. He thinks they are finding out who they are. From my point of view, it looks like they know who they have. They're just still figuring out how to use them. And from the first half of the Kentucky game, it's clear that Gus and company are willing to try new things and be creative to find that out.