Wide receiver Kyle Davis (above) makes a play for the Tigers as a freshman.
Chip Lindsey's arrival on the Plains might be the most auspicious moment for the new offensive coordinator and the Auburn offense. Hired to revamp a passing offense ranked No. 112 in yards per game and No. 54 in efficiency during the 2016 college football season, it would appear Lindsey has a major task in front of him.
The plan is to weave his “Air-Raid” passing concepts into Gus Malzahn’s downhill, up-tempo running attack to forge a lethal combination to defend. Though there will be challenges ahead for Lindsey, the moving parts are already present to field a prosperous offense.
The point of attack will be the quarterback position, where Auburn has secured the services of sophomore Jarrett Stidham. The transfer comes from Baylor, working under the guidance of Art Briles, a former assistant under Mike Leach. Elements of Leach’s “Air-Raid” schemes became part of the Briles offenses at the collegiate level. Stidham should make a smooth transition into Lindsey’s offense in 2017.
“We started recruiting him from way back when,” Malzahn said of the Stephenville, Tex., native, who attended juco classes last fall, but did not play football, leaving him three seasons of eligibility at Auburn. “We thought he was the top quarterback in the country when he came out and chose to go to another school,” Malzahn said.
“For us to have a guy like him, we think he is an outstanding player and outstanding person with great leadership so we feel he will be a great addition to our team,” Auburn’s head coach added.
As a senior in high school Stidham threw for 35 touchdown passes and rushed for 15 more, making him one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country.
As a true freshman at Baylor, Stidham spent a lot of time in the pocket, racking up an efficiency rating of 198.9 during 10 games. He completed nearly 69 percent of his passes for 12 touchdowns and only two interceptions. His ability to sling the football should blend well with Lindsey’s passing schemes.
Every offense has its favorite ways of distributing the football. Regardless of schemes, the wide receiver position will be the focal point of any pass offense. This is good news as Auburn utilized four freshman receivers during the 2016 season. Eli Stove, Darius Slayton, Kyle Davis and Nate Craig-Myers combined for 54 receptions. The quartet averaged 15.4 yards per reception as Auburn’s remaining four receivers averaged 11.7 yards per reception.
Eli Stove contributed to the Tigers during his freshman season.
Looking back at the last decade of football, freshman receivers in the Southeastern Conference averaged 12.9 yards per reception. Combine Stidham with Auburn’s returning talent at the wide receiver position and Coach Lindsey has a strong foundation to build a competent pass offense attack this fall.
Auburn’s freshmen were targeted only 35 percent of the time among the wide receiver corps, but managed to account for 42 percent of the team’s impact plays at the position.
During the past nine seasons wide receivers among the current 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference accounted for 66.3 percent of the receptions. Running backs accounted for 17.7 percent and the tight end position accounted for 14.0 percent. Missouri had the highest percentage at wide receiver with 72.4 and Florida had the lowest at 56.8 percent. Tennessee had the highest proportion at running back with 22.6 percent while Missouri had the lowest at 10.6 percent. Arkansas has utilized the tight end position the most in the passing game at 22.0 percent and Texas A&M was the lowest at 6.2 percent.
Auburn over the past nine seasons has completed 70.0 percent of its passes to wide receivers, 20.1 percent to the running backs and 7.5 percent to tight ends. During the past three seasons, Lindsey’s offenses have distributed the football to the wide receivers 72.7 percent of the time, 24.1 percent to the running backs and 2.9 percent to the tight ends.
The Air-Raid offense rarely utilizes the tight end position in the passing game. Mike Leach at Washington State did not have a tight end listed on the active roster this past season and has not completed a pass to a tight end the past three seasons. Baylor’s passing distribution the past three seasons has been 91.8 percent to its wide receivers, 4.3 percent to their running backs and 3.3 percent to their tight ends.
Malzahn’s pass offense has utilized the wide receivers for 69.8 percent of the catches, running backs at 22.9 percent and tight ends 4.8 percent of the time. Malzahn’s tight ends have caught only 114 passes during 11 seasons, but 36 have gone for touchdowns, which means they are a primary target inside the red zone. Pass distribution is about spreading the ball around to the actual skill players on the field and not necessarily by position alone. If the tight ends are rarely on the field they shouldn’t have a high volume of receptions. As long as Lindsey targets a wide variety of personnel on the field the pass offense will be difficult to defend.
The addition of tight end Sal Cannella should give Auburn two viable threats at the tight end position in 2017. “He has got great ball skills...just did a very good job,” Malzahn said of the transfer from junior college. “He is kind of a half receiver, half tight end. I think he has got great potential. We are excited to have him in the mix.”
Malzahn has always valued the tight end inside the red zone, and he recognizes Cannella’s potential in this facet. “This past year in junior college they did a lot of stuff in the red zone,” Malzahn noted. “The one-on-one, 50-50 balls he was really good at.”
Based on their history, Malzahn and Lindsey won’t likely feature the tight end in the passing game, but that doesn’t mean the pass offense won’t flourish. A consistent distribution of the football among the wide receivers and running backs can be a difficult scheme to defend.