Auburn, Ala.--Heading into the 2006 season Auburn's tight end's were expected to be one of the strength on an offense geared up to be one of the best in the country. Instead the injury to Cole Bennett left the Tigers with two talented but inexperienced tight ends to run the show and while they performed admirable neither their nor Auburn's season turned out like anyone expected on offense.
That makes the beginning of spring practice an exciting time for position coach Steve Ensminger. With Bennett coming back for his fifth year after receiving a medical hardship for last season and both Gabe McKenzie and Tommy Trott and year older and wiser, Ensminger says that he's looking forward to seeing how the group responds this spring after catching 25 passes for 256 yards and three touchdowns last year.
The leader of the group is unquestionably the powerful Bennett. At 6-5 and nearly 270 pounds, Bennett is the physical warrior that has been a big part of Auburn's running game since his true freshman season. Without him last year the Tigers struggled to get to the corner at times in the running game. Ensminger says he's happy to have Bennett back but not just because of his contributions on the field.
"I think it helps us immensely," Ensminger says. "Since I have been here we really haven't had three tight ends. We were feeling pretty good last year when we had three but heck, we haven't even had three to use on the goal line. He'll come back and help because of his blocking ability alone and his size but also because of his work habits. In the weight room and early morning workouts he tries to outwork everybody out there. His leadership is big for us on offense. We lose a bunch of people on offense and he has to be a leader for us on offense, he and Brandon Cox."
Senior tight end Cole Bennett is back for his fifth year after being injured early in the 2006 season.
A powerful blocker and improving receiver, the 6-4, 255 McKenzie had a very good year in 2006 considering most people thought of him simply as a decent receiver at best. Catching 13 passes for 137 yards and one score, Ensminger says McKenzie heads into the spring with a very good first year of playing under his belt.
"He did a good job of blocking, which we expected," Ensminger says. "Going into the season and even in the preseason, everybody was concerned about him catching the football and running routes. He still has a ways to go about learning the techniques of running a route but as far as catching the football he had a great year. I don't know if he dropped one and, knock on wood, I hope it doesn't happen. He improved his pass receiving skills but needs to get better on his routes."
On the other end of the spectrum of blocking and pass receiving is Trott. At 6-5, 255, the Montgomery native caught just 10 passes for 94 yards and two touchdowns as a redshirt freshman last season. Those numbers are a little disappointing considering the talent Trott has shown in practices and as a scout team member in 2005. Ensminger says the catches will come but he's proud of the way Trott battled to become a better blocker last season.
"We knew he could catch and heck he might have even dropped one," Ensminger says. "He understands routes and that's the reason he gets open. If we would have had Cole last year Tommy would have probably gotten a lot more catches in my opinion. I think that will help Tommy out this year. He did improve on his blocking. That's one thing I was proud of. He got his weight up to about 255 and he improved on his blocking. He still made some mistakes but the last two games, the Alabama game and the Nebraska game, I thought were his best two games in terms of blocking. That was against two good teams so I expect that to carry on and get better."
Tommy Trott is a big-play receiver at the tight end position that is looking to break out as a sophomore.
Auburn's fourth tight end in the spring will be true freshman Brent Slusher from Kentucky. Following in the footsteps of Ben Tate the year before, Slusher graduated from high school early and has been on the Auburn campus since early January getting ready for spring practice. While he's not expected to play right away for the Tigers next season because of the depth at the position, Ensminger says getting Slusher indoctrinated into the offense early can only help down the road.
"It's good for him to get in," Ensminger says. "The two tight ends we signed this year are very athletic. The Slusher kid played basketball and the big disappointment with him is that he lost about 15 pounds playing. Right now he's down to 220 but he's very athletic. He can run and catches the ball well. The thing he does really well is kind of like Tommy, he catches the deep ball well. That's probably the hardest ball to catch and he showed that in camp. The most impressive thing about him is that going from a senior in high school to a freshman in college his maturity is great as far as not missing classes, not missing academics, not missing workouts. He has worked hard in the early mornings and has done everything we've asked him to do. Not everyone can do it because you have to be a very mature person to do that because it's very taxing to play football and go to class and go to study hall and all the things involved but he's handled it well."
With four quality athletes at his disposal in the spring, Ensminger says the 15 days will be tough on his guys as they work to get better at the point of attack. Blocking is always a big part of the job of a tight end in Auburn's offense but Ensminger says if he has his way that will be just one of the talents showcased by his group in the coming season.
"Our main goal is to get better at blocking period," Ensminger says. "We've got to be able to run the football. By gameplan and by injuries and because of the people we played, we didn't throw the ball vertically enough in my opinion. I have talked to Coach (Al) Borges about that. To do that, we've got to be able to stretch the field vertically from the tight end position. We've got to get better at that. We've got to get better at reading the coverages and finding the holes we can get vertically. That's big. We're going to work fundamentals on run blocking every day and we'll get better at that but the biggest key is extending our game down the field more for the tight end position."