"I won't be coaching just tight ends," Steve Ensminger says. "I will be coaching all of the other inside receivers, which we define as the H position."
The coach points out that the tight ends will have a major role in the Tony Franklin spread offense under the direction of AU's new offensive coordinator. The same is true of the H-backs that Ensminger will coach, whether they are also wide receivers or running backs.
A pair of juniors are two of the players that Ensminger notes that he is looking forward to working with again this year.
"We have Tommy Trott coming back and I am really excited about that," the coach says. "The last two years I think he has done a really outstanding job of blocking. We haven't been able to, for whatever reason, get the ball into his hands as much as we would like to. I think this scheme, this system, will work really well for him.
"I don't know if he ran this system in high school, but he was more a spread out tight end who ran routes down the field so I think what we are doing fits him really well.
"The beauty of it is that he understands our running game," says Ensminger, who notes that what Trott learned in the previous years will help him be a good blocker this fall.
Tommy Trott will be a junior this fall for the Tigers.
When it comes time to throw the football, Ensminger says Trott has a chance to be a major part of the offense's success this fall. "I think this system will enable him to get down the field and catch the ball," the coach notes.
"Gabe McKenzie has played two years for us and is an outstanding blocker," Ensminger says of the junior tight end. "It is a little different system for him running downfield from a two-point stance. He is athletic enough to do well with what we are doing."
One of the areas of focus for McKenzie during the 15 days of spring practice will be to perfect the way he runs his pass routes. If he does that, he should get a significant number of passes thrown his way.
Ensminger says he likes what he has seen from the hard-working junior, who is finishing up winter workouts this week. "Gabe has proven his worth to the offense the last two years," the coach says.
"With Tommy and Gabe coming back with experience, I feel very good about the position," Ensminger says. "Even in the bowl game, even though we ran spread plays, we rushed the ball about 50 times out of the 90 plays. Out of those 90 plays, one-third of the time we were in two tight end sets. We aren't going to get away from that. We are going to continue to run the football and those two will be big assets for us."
A true sophomore is also expected to be in the playing rotation at tight end. "We have Brent Slusher, who played a little special teams for us last year," Ensminger points out. "He is a very athletic kid. If you put him and Bailey Woods together right now, those are two very intelligent kids who can run and stretch the field vertically. They have to have a big improvement this spring. They are athletic enough to do that. They have to understand the running game and learn the pass routes."
Both Woods and Slusher will be tall targets for the Auburn quarterbacks. Woods, who will be a redshirt freshman this fall, is 6-6 and checks in around 245 pounds while Slusher is close to 6-4, 235, Ensminger says.
Ensminger notes that he likes their size. "Brent, with this offense, is right where we need him to be," he says. "As he grows, I think he will get up to about 240 and I think Bailey will get to 250 and carry it easily. From watching our sprints in our strength and conditioning, with the weight they have on now, neither one is laboring with the running and they are running real well. Probably by the fall, we will ask them to be five pounds heavier so if they lose five pounds during two-a-days they will be right where they are at right now."
With Cole Bennett graduated, Trott and McKenzie give the Tigers tight ends who are expected to play at about 250 pounds. "Tommy and Gabe look good now with their conditioning," says Ensminger, who has been helping coach winter workout drills. "Coach Yox (strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall) works them pretty hard. Our early morning conditioning is really tough. The first two years, at almost every position you struggle a little bit and I think it is more mental than anything.
After redshirting last fall, Bailey Woods will be competing for playing time.
"This year you can see the maturity of Tommy and Gabe. They are getting through the workouts very easily and I am very pleased with Bailey and Brent. They are not as consistent as the other two, but they are not laboring on the running and they are doing a good job on the agility drills."
Ensminger will have smaller and quicker receivers to coach, too.
"We moved Tim Hawthorne into an inside wide receiver spot," he says of the sophomore. "I think he will also play well. When we go to a four wide receiver package, he will play there. He will also work some as a wide receiver. If we feel like we need some more speed and more range, Tim will play there and he is big enough.
Tim Hawthorne will be a redshirt sophomore this fall.
"He is about six-two or six-foot-three--maybe a little bigger than that--and he is used to running routes and knows how to get off jams from the outside. You don't get as many jams from the outside at this position, which will help him, because it gives him a chance to get off the ball quicker."
A trio of young Tigers will also be closely watched by Ensminger. "Right now we are working Mario Fannin at the H position along with Terrell Zachery and Chris Slaughter," he says. "Terrell and Chris will benefit from playing at the wide receiver position. They understand the routes and they both run very well. As far as them running routes, I don't see them having any problem. Being as young as they are, they are going to have to work on their blocking in the spring because we are going to run the ball.
"Mario is a really good athlete," Ensminger says. "The first play of the (bowl) game we motioned him back into the backfield and ran a boot off of it. We are going to be able to motion him and hand him the football, throw him screens and also use his athletic ability to stretch the field because he can really run. Those three can really help us.
"The thing I am excited about is that in the bowl game I know the inside receivers caught 13 passes," the coach notes. "They are going to have to be very consistent catching the football and they are going to have to make big plays for us. In the concept of this offense, they are going to have catch a few screens and be very physical blocking."
Slaughter, a late qualifier last season, wasn't able to get to campus on time to participate in AU's strength and conditioning program. He still played although he was undersized at six-foot-three and around 165 pounds. "He doesn't look like he has gained weight, but I was very pleased with his conditioning," Ensminger says. "He is deceivingly fast. He is a bit of a strider. Once he gets off the ball and starts running, he can really stretch the field and he has great hands.
AU's coaches are hoping that Chris Slaughter has a breakout season.
"That position, with Mario, Terrell Zachery and Chris, they all have great hands," Ensminger says. "Being an inside receiver, you have to understand how to read zone coverage, how to beat man coverage and you have to be able to take the ball on the screen, like Mario did in the bowl game, and make good plays out of it.
Commenting on the new offense, which the Tigers put in for the bowl game with a crash course during nine practices while preparing to play Clemson, Ensminger says, "I am enjoying it because the players are excited about it. When you run 90 plays a game, you can't do it with one tight end or even two tight ends. You can't do it with just one H-back so they are all in the game.
"They have to prove to us that can play the positions in the game, but if they do that and work hard enough they will all get a chance to run down the field and catch the football," the coach says.
Ensminger notes it was a challenge for the coaches as well as the players to learn enough about Franklin's spread offense during bowl preparations to run the system vs. Clemson.
"It was tough because I have never done anything like that as a coach, but I knew our players would take to it and they worked their tails off to do it," says Ensminger, who admits, "I wasn't very optimistic about it. Everybody knew they were going to play and they busted their tails to learn this offense. Still, through nerves and everything else, in the first half we made six or seven bad mistakes at our position. In the second half we didn't. I think it was because we were playing a new system, the signals and everything else and we had some players out there who hadn't played a lot and they were antsy and nervous.
"The good part about the offense is that it gave us a chance to get some fresh people on the field," the coach adds. "If you move the ball and everything else, you keep rotating with a new tight end and whether it is Tommy Trott in there, Gabe McKenzie, Brent Slusher or Tim Hawthorne, it is a little different covering each one of them, especially in the second quarter or the fourth quarter against teams that don't sub that much. Against the one or two guys who end up having to cover them, by the time you get to the 80th or 90th play, you should have the advantage."