AUBURN — H-back isn’t the flashiest position in Gus Malzahn’s offense, but it is an important one.
And for the first time in four years, it’s going to have a different face. Chandler Cox, who has started at that spot every season since 2015, played out his eligibility last year and is now with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Top tight end Tucker Brown was also a senior last season, so he’s gone, too.
Here’s what we know and don’t know about two positions undergoing an overhaul both in terms of personnel and usage in 2019:
Spencer Nigh (Sr.), Jay Jay Wilson (Sr.), John Samuel Shenker (So.), Luke Deal (Fr.), Tyler Fromm (Fr.)
What we know
What we know is that Auburn wants to use the H-back position differently this season. Not necessarily “more” in a rushing or receiving capacity — just differently.
One of the reasons it felt like the Malzahn and Chip Lindsey-led offense got away from its hurry-up, no-huddle roots last season was the amount of substituting it did, specifically at the H-back and tight end position — when Auburn wanted the former, Cox was on the field, and when the latter was required, Brown replaced him.
Now that Lindsey is gone (he’s the head coach at Troy) and Malzahn is back to calling plays again, the plan is to get back to going fast. Auburn wants to “keep 11 guys on the field without changing a whole bunch of personnel.” That necessitates having a player who can line up at both H-back and tight end depending on formation, so the offense can have both without having to substitute.
The player who filled that role during the spring was Shenker, who played that role for coach Rush Propst at Colquitt County (Ga.) High and was signed almost specifically because of his versatility. As a receiver, he caught three passes for 40 yards and a touchdown last season and three for 26 yards on A-Day.
“John has really stepped up,” Malzahn said. “Now that Chandler is gone, he's really trying to establish himself as the guy. He's off to a really good start. He just needs all the reps he can get.”
But Shenker will face some competition this fall in the form of Wilson, a graduate transfer from Arizona State who arrived on campus this summer. The senior played linebacker during the 2017 season and in 2018 before redshirting, but he started his career at tight end and is known for his downfield blocking ability.
He’s not an unknown, either — Auburn’s first-year offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham was the tight ends coach at Arizona State during Wilson’s freshman year in 2015.
What we don't know
What we don’t know is what role, if any, Deal and Fromm will be able to carve out in the offense as true freshmen — a question that’s even more difficult to answer after Deal tore his ACL in December and missed spring practice.
It would have been complicated if Deal was healthy — even if you consider Shenker to be a tight end, that position has accounted for just seven catches for 73 yards over the past four seasons since C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse graduated following the 2015 campaign (Sal Cannella caught 15 passes for 142 yards during that span, but he plays more wide receiver than tight end).
But the Tigers did make it a priority to sign both Deal and Fromm, who were three-star recruits from Emerald, South Carolina, and Warner Robins, Georgia, respectively. They were down to zero players at the position after last year — Brown was a senior, and Jalen Harris transferred after three games — and now they have two promising ones.
What that means for Auburn’s offense, however, remains to be seen.
They said it
“That's a position that's in a little bit of transition, but I think it's a good thing moving forward. Now I will say this, with Chandler Cox, he's a tough guy to replace. He was a four-year starter and a coach on the field. He made things right when things weren't right sometimes. That's big shoes to fill for him. We'll be doing it by committee as far as spring goes. But that'll be a good position battle.” — Gus Malzahn