Spring Football Preview: Tight Ends

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of articles previewing spring football practice.

Auburn, Ala.--Since the beginning of the 2003 season Auburn's tight end position has basically been a one-man show with Cooper Wallace starting all but one game for the Tigers during that stretch and catching 52 passes for 829 yards and four touchdowns during his career.

This season things will be different as Auburn returns senior Cole Bennett as the only experienced tight end on the roster, but talented redshirt freshmen Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie will challenge for playing time right away as the Tigers try to stretch the field more from the position.

Coach Steve Ensminger says that before they can move forward with spring practice it's tough not to think about what Wallace did for the program on and off the field in his time at Auburn.

"Cooper was not only a good player for us, but he was a great leader for us," the tight ends coach says. "He was a good athlete, but his work ethics in the weight room and everywhere else just helped our team out. The work ethic of that whole senior class was special.

"Cooper is such a good person for me because during this time of year I can't be with them. Last spring and this fall he really helped me out with the young tight ends taking them through the fundamentals and teaching them.

"He did the same thing with Cole when he got here. He helped us all the way round. We're going to miss him. He started the last two years and played as a freshman. He's been around here a long time and won a bunch of ball games for us. He will be missed."

Expected to take over the role as the starter is the senior Bennett. Despite being the second tight end and used mostly as a blocker, Bennett has managed to catch 16 passes for 179 yards and three touchdowns in his three seasons as a Tiger. Ensminger says that his solid junior season is a good sign of things to come for the Dalton, Ga., native.

"You look back at his career and as a staff you wish you could have not played him as a freshman, but he was just thrown in there," Ensminger says of Bennett. "He grew up and then last year he didn't play as much. We've actually gone through the last two years with just two tight ends. Knock on wood neither of them got hurt, but this past year he got bigger and stronger.

"This past year he started weighing over 260. We ran a lot more two tight end sets. His blocking really improved. We didn't use him that much in the passing game, but when we needed him he caught the ball and made some big plays for us.

Bennett catches a pass against Ole Miss last season.

"The biggest thing about Cole is that he's a very mature young man," he adds. "He's graduating in May after just three years. As far as work habits and studying he's never been a problem. He's made himself a good football player and football is important to him.

"He works his butt off in the weight room. If you tell him ‘these are the steps to take' then you better be telling him right because he's going to do it exactly the way you tell him to do it because he wants to be good at it. I'm looking forward to his senior year because right now he's taking over Cooper's role of teaching the young kids the offense and taking them through the fundamentals of what we expect. He's done a great job with that."

If having a good spring practice is important for Bennett to establish himself as the starter, it's a must for both Trott and McKenzie as they try to learn the offense and fit in the passing game right away with experienced returnees like quarterback Brandon Cox and wide receivers Courtney Taylor and Prechae Rodriguez. Ensminger says that both guys will have ample opportunities to show what they can do when the Tigers open practice on Feb. 28.

"It's very big for them," Ensminger says. "Kind of like I did with Cole last year, they will take the majority of the reps. When we start scrimmaging Cole will get his reps with the first team. He'll get 10, 15, 30, whatever, but the young ones will have to grow up quick so they'll take the majority of the reps because we know what we've got in Cole."

Tommy Trott has perhaps the best hands on the team and will be a weapon in the passing game.

Listed at 6-5, 225 on last season's roster but closer to 6-6, 245 now, Trott has the potential to be the biggest receiving threat at the tight end position in a long time for the Tigers.

Essentially a wide receiver for Trinity Presbyterian in Montgomery, Trott has great hands and a knack for going up in traffic and bringing the ball down. Ensminger says that because of that he'll need to improve in other areas this spring to become a complete player.

"Both of them are really good athletes," Ensminger says of Trott and McKenzie. "Both of them have their strengths and their weaknesses. Tommy has to improve on his blocking. During the course of two-a-days when we were going to play him he did some good things blocking and he gives great effort because he's not scared. He was never asked to do a whole lot of it in high school and he has to improve on that. He does a great job of stretching the field. He's a big target at 6-6 or whatever he is.

"He has great hands," Ensminger adds. "His forte is that when you get the ball around him he's going to catch the football. He's the tight end that you look for that can stretch the field. I'm curious to see, because I have my own ideas about him, how people are going to try to play him man-to-man because he uses his body real well in coverage and can go up and get the football. We'll work mostly with his blocking this spring because he's pretty much a natural at pass receiving."

The more physical of the duo at a solid 6-4, 250, McKenzie will likely be called upon to do more blocking early in his career because of his aggressiveness and strength at the point of attack. Although he made great strides catching the ball last year while redshirting, Ensminger says McKenzie must keep working on that aspect of the game to become a more complete player.

McKenzie shows off his blocking skills against linebacker Chris Evans during a scrimmage last fall.

"Gabe is just the opposite (of Trott)," Ensminger says. "In high school all he did was block and he's an outstanding blocker. He'll put his nose in there. He has great feet and is up to 250 pounds right now. He enjoys blocking.

"He's not as crisp running routes because he's never done it, but he's fast enough and athletic enough to run them. His hands aren't as good as Tommy's right now, but that's something he'll work on in the spring.

"We've kind of got two different tight ends right now and hopefully we can get them in the spring and put them in situations of what their weaknesses are. Then we'll come out better at the tight end position."

In addition to Bennett, Trott and McKenzie the Tigers also return walk-on Danny Perry for spring practice. At 6-2, 250, the son of Auburn's Director of Football Operations Jimmy Perry, Danny is a valuable special teams player for the Tigers and will provide depth as Auburn's fourth tight end.

Perry will provide solid depth at the position for the Tigers this spring.

Auburn will open spring practice Feb. 28 and will have 12 practices before the annual A-Day Game on March 18 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers will practice twice following the game to wrap up spring drills.

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