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How the Backfield’s Role in the Passing Game Continues to Expand

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Auburn made sure to involve their backfield in the passing game Saturday. Let’s take a look at how and why this is a big development moving forward.

Auburn v Washington Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I think most Auburn fans were excited to see what improvements Chip Lindsey would bring to Auburn’s passing offense when he was hired to replace Rhett Lashlee back in early 2017. Personally, I was most excited to see if Auburn would use their running backs more in the passing game as that was a big part of Lindsey’s offensive attack at previous destinations. We saw immediate results last season. After not having a single running back catch more than 17 passes in the previous four years, Kerryon Johnson snagged 24 receptions for 194 yards and a touchdown last year. Based off Auburn’s offensive performance Saturday, I expect those numbers to climb even higher in 2018.

Kam Martin, Chandler Cox and JaTarvious Whitlow combined for 89 yards on 10 catches Saturday. They did so in a variety of ways as well. The majority of running back targets in 2018 came via screens or designed short routes with blockers ahead of the back. Auburn still used plenty of those concepts in Saturday’s win.

But there were two big developments that have me excited for the future.

First, Auburn further adapted their Split Zone RPO concept that they used with devastating effect in 2017. The Split Zone is a variation of the Inside Zone and Read Option concepts that Auburn has come to rely on in their rushing attack. The offensive line uses Inside Zone blocking principles but like the Read Option, leaves the end man at the line of scrimmage unblocked. However, the QB is not reading that defender but instead a blocker (typically a fullback, tight end or h-back) comes across for a kick out block which can open up a nice cutback lane for the running back. This concept has become more prevalent throughout college football in recent seasons. Auburn used it a ton last season.

The Split Zone RPO takes that concept but instead of having the H-Back block the end man, he slips out into the flat. The QB then reads the unblocked defender as he would in the read option. If he crashes inside, the QB dumps the ball to the flat. If he stays outside, then the QB gives it to the running back.

Auburn killed Georgia with this RPO in their first meeting last November. However, when they used it they typically deployed either Ryan Davis or Eli Stove as the H-Back. While both are dynamic weapons with the ball in their hands, they don’t necessarily scare defenses as blockers. So seeing them motion to the H-Back position typically signaled this play was coming.

Imagine how devastating this play might be if Auburn used their typical H-Back to run it? Well we found out Saturday and it worked pretty durn well.

Notice how neither Washington’s defensive end nor their linebacker pay any attention to Cox on this play. Instead, they both come crashing inside. Hilariously, Auburn also ran it at one point with Cox in the backfield and Jalen Harris at H-Back. Some poor blocking doomed the result but it’s clear moving forward that Auburn isn’t afraid to run this play with any sort of personnel on the field. That’s a big improvement. It now means teams won’t immediately know before a snap what play is probably coming purely because of who is lined up in the backfield. It should also help the running game as now at least one of those defenders has to pause for a moment to see if Cox is going to get the football. That pause could be all Martin needs to break a big run.

The other big development was Auburn’s greater use of checkdowns Saturday. Last season, especially early in the year, if Stidham had nowhere to go with the football it lead to either a sack, a poorly attempted scramble or an incomplete pass. As the season progressed, Auburn did a better job of providing Stidham with checkdowns to dump it off too if he got into trouble. That progress continued against Washington Saturday.

Having a guy like Kam Martin who excels at finding space when a play breaks down should be a huge help for Stidham this season. But one of the biggest plays of the day came in the form of a checkdown by Stidham to Chandler Cox.

That completion kept the chains moving and eventually lead to a touchdown. All of a sudden, teams are going to have to start paying a lot more attention to Chandler Cox.

Obviously, this is just one game so it’s easy to overreact. There’s a chance neither Cox nor Martin see that many receptions in future contests. But considering Chip Lindsey’s past and what Auburn did late last season I think that’s doubtful. Instead, I suspect that Auburn’s backfield will only get more and more involved in the passing game moving forward. That’s an exciting development for an offensive attack that has at times in the past been a chunk it deep or nothing type of scheme.

War Eagle!