Since 2015, Auburn tight ends have combined to catch 11 passes for 103 yards and 4 TDs. Barring attrition or any position changes, Auburn is on pace to enter the 2021 season with six tight ends on the roster. That number could climb to seven if the Tigers can snag 4-star Michael Trigg.
That begs the question...
To understand Auburn’s recent obsession with tight ends (giggity) you have to understand one of the key differences between Gus Malzahn and Chad Morris’s offensive schemes.
By now, you are probably well aware of Malzahn and Morris’s backstory. The short version is Morris was struggling to replicate the tremendous success his predecessor, Art Briles, had while head coach at Stephenville High School in Texas. He was finally able to convince Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator at Tulsa at the time, to teach him the fundamentals of his system. When Malzahn finally relented, Morris’s career took off and a close friendship was born between the former HS head coaches.
But it’s important to understand that Morris didn’t just copy and paste Malzahn’s playbook into his future offenses. He took many of the core concepts and built around them in his own way. One of the major differences between the two offensive minds is their preferred base personnel. Specifically the type of skillset at the 3-back position. Under Malzahn, Auburn’s offense has typically featured a fullback who spends 98% of his time blocking. The tight end was originally the 5 man in Gus’s offense but has now changed into more of a blocking focused big wide receiver (ala Sal Cannella, Shedrick Jackson and Nate Craig-Myers). Here’s a great explanation on the 3 and 5 positions in Gus Malzhan’s offense from the legendary WarRoomEagle.
“The 3 is the now famous H-back, the spread offense’s version of the fullback. He is different from a fullback in that he must have more lateral speed, able to block from left tackle to right tackle, while also being a threat to receive a pass. (I think of fullbacks as straight-line, between-the-tackles, lead blockers, though they can catch passes, too.)”
“In today’s football, the tight end is a special player, a sort of hybrid between a wide receiver and offensive lineman. In Malzahn’s spread, the tight end is the 5, but the 5 is more on the receiver side of the spectrum. In fact, he rarely lines up next to a tackle. Instead, he is often detached from the line. This forces the defense to either send a linebacker over or bring a safety down to cover him as a receiving threat. It also gives the 5 a better angle for blocking when a run goes wide.”
Morris though differs in how he sets up his offense. Very early in his career he pivoted to using a true tight end at the 3 spot and a 3rd WR at the 5. Here he is breaking down his preferred personnel two years ago at a media event in Fayetteville.
I should note that Chip Lindsey began this 3-back transition when he was hired in 2017. He passed on signing a fullback in Chase Lassiter and instead landed John Samuel Shenker. The next cycle he signed Luke Deal and Tyler Fromm. However, Auburn still had Chandler Cox on the roster and last season featured Spencer Nigh most often at the 3. 2020 will be the first season that position will feature only tight end personnel.
One of the reasons Morris prefers to use the tight end at this spot is the versatility it provides. A fullback might prove to be a better blocker in the box but he can’t line up on the line of scrimmage or split out wide. Under Morris, the tight end does a little of everything. Here’s a great example from Arkansas’s first drive against Texas A&M last season.
CJ O’Grady, Arkansas’s leading receiver in 2019, is the tight end and is lined up on the line of scrimmage like a traditional tight end.
On 2nd down, he’s positioned as an H-Back to the far side of the field.
Finally, on 3rd down you see him split out wide to the near side as a wide receiver in a stacked look.
Auburn did similar things with the 3 last season but they used three different players to do so. Spencer Nigh and John Samuel Shenker were often featured as H-Backs or inlined tight ends. When splitting out wide, Auburn would often sub in Jay Jay Wilson. Under Morris, the plan is for one player to fill all those roles.
What that versatility then allows an offense to do is attack the defense in a number of ways. Now you have to account for the 3 man in pass coverage something Auburn’s opponents haven’t really had to do. Morris really likes using the tight end in quick hitting RPO concepts like the one below.
This is from 2011 featuring Mackey award winner Dwayne Allen. He’s lined up as an H-back, motions across the line and then bluffs like he’s going to block out wide before breaking inside on an angle route. The linebacker flows too wide and Tajh Boyd hits Allen for a nice gain over the middle.
Morris loves punishing over aggressive defenses with the tight end by converting his normal blocking paths into down the field routes for big gains.
O’Grady is lined up as an H-Back and appears to initially be blocking for a bubble screen. But he’s actually running a wheel route and the Aggies defense over pursues the bubble threat allowing O’Grady to get down field for a big gain.
It’s not just from the H-Back spot Morris will attack defenses with this concept. He will also split the tight end out wide and punish defenses that way.
Again, the bubble screen is used as the bait to draw in the defense. The tight end runs at his defender as if he’s going to block then breaks inside. Watch how the single high safety comes screaming down to take away the bubble. Instead, the QB hits the tight end who has lots of green grass in front of him and takes it to the house.
Can you imagine what #AuburnTwitter’s reaction would be if an Auburn tight end went 69 yards for a touchdown?
So back to the original question. Why is Auburn stockpiling tight ends? Because they are about to become a key piece of Auburn’s offensive attack.
Morris likes to rotate three tight ends in a game, often utilizing 12 personnel out of a Pistol formation to run the ball or attack defenses over the top with play action. There’s usually a featured tight end who can do everything, a backup that can line up anywhere as well to spell the top guy and a blocking specialist. That means, three tight ends need to ready to play each season. All of a sudden, having six or seven on the roster doesn’t sound all that crazy.