Auburn, Ala.--Despite the loss of three-year starter Cooper Wallace at the tight end position, the Auburn University Tigers are loaded heading into the 2006 season with returning veteran Cole Bennett back as well as young and talented players ready to carry on the proud tradition of tight ends on the Plains.
Valuable in both the run and pass games for the Tigers, Wallace had a very solid end to his career in 2005 when he caught 20 passes for 195 yards and one touchdown. While his numbers were never big, position Coach Steve Ensminger says that Wallace’s loss will be felt heavily in the running game until someone steps up and takes over the physical play he leaves behind.
“Cooper was a great run blocker for us,” Ensminger says. “He had great feet and we ran behind him a good bit. He wasn’t the fastest player in the world, but he could also stretch the field vertically for us. Two years ago he made some big catches for us down the field. Having that type of player whether it’s Cole or one of the young kids, they’re probably not as good of a blocker as Cooper was, means that we’ll probably use a bunch more tight ends that just Cooper Wallace.”
The main person expected to be Auburn’s replacement for Wallace is Bennett. A senior who has played a great deal his first three seasons, Bennett caught nine passes last season for 107 yards and two touchdowns. While he has improved in all areas since arriving at Auburn, Ensminger says that the Dalton, Ga., native should be able to help the Tigers at the point of attack this season because of the effort he’s put into becoming a better blocker as well as receiver.
“He has worked at it,” Ensminger says. “I think going into the season he can be as good or better at run blocking than Cooper was. He’s just a bigger body. He’s 6-5, 265 pounds and has really worked hard on his technique. He’s really worked hard on his feet after going back and watching film on how Cooper did it and understanding the defense well and the blocking schemes.
Bennett is a physical blocker who can also get the job done catching the ball.
”He’s good at understanding when to put pressure on and when to take pressure off," Ensminger adds. "A big body blocking on a linebacker when they’re trying to run away from them is usually going to fall down. He’s done an excellent job of knowing that when he’s got pressure he has to push and when he doesn’t have pressure to sit.
"He really did an outstanding job this spring. It’s the first time I’ve seen any of our tight ends understand that concept. He’s got better technique, better fundamentals, and his feet have gotten better.”
While Bennett brings the physical nature needed at the position, redshirt freshmen Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie bring speed and athleticism to the table not normally seen at the tight end position. Basically a big receiver in high school, the 6-5, 252 Trott is a pass catching machine who has been performing well since getting on campus. Ensminger says that Trott is a player that should help the Tigers expand the offense this season to incorporate more use of the tight end.
“I was telling a recruit this year that tight ends are tough to evaluate in high school because you’re either a run-oriented offense where all they do is block or they’re split out as wide receivers and you never see them block," AU's tight end coach says. "I’ve got both scenarios right now. Tommy Trott in high school was split outside. He’s a very fluid, athletic receiver that catches the ball with ease. We’ve spent most of our time with him learning how to block. As far as running down the field catching the ball and being a good athlete to beat a one-on-one coverage, he can do it. He’s got to get better at blocking and I think he has.”
Trott is a dangerous receiver from the tight end position.
A different type of player than Trott, the 6-4, 255 McKenzie is redshirt freshman who is as physical as any young player on the Auburn team. With the look of a bodybuilder, the Mobile native has the strength to push around opponents in the run game. In addition to that he has the speed to also get down the field if needed. Ensminger says he brings an intriguing combination of skills to the offense this season.
“Gabe McKenzie came out of a run-oriented offense in high school and is a natural blocker,” Ensminger says. “He’s going to be as good as we’ve had here at blocking. He’s just a natural technician with great pad level and hip flex, just a good blocker. He can also run, but he’s not as fluid at Tommy is right now. He can stretch the field vertically. He struggled a little bit last year catching the football, but we were excited with his progress during the spring. I think he dropped one or two passes all spring. He’s getting better at it.”
McKenzie has gained more than 30 pounds since getting to Auburn last summer.
True freshman Michael Goggans might be the wild card at the position. At 6-3, 260 he has the look of an offensive lineman but the athleticism to make plays in the passing game. Because of that Ensminger says the Alexander City native will get a chance during two-a-days to work himself into the rotation.
“It’s a wait and see with him,” Ensminger says. “I want Michael to learn the tight end position right now. Cole already knows the opposite tight end position. We’re working with Gabe and Tommy to learn the other tight end and the movement. I’m just going to see how far Michael can go. Once he learns the position we’ll see how far he can go.”
No matter how it works out as far as who plays in certain situations or who is getting the most action on running downs, Auburn should be more prolific at the position in 2006 than last season. With 29 total catches from Wallace and Bennett there wasn’t the production that the coaches had hoped for coming into the season. With the talent on hand and the desire of the coaching staff the make the position featured in the offense, it will be a surprise if that number isn’t doubled in 2006.
“The beauty of it is that, at that position because of what we’re asking them to do, you can’t play all 75 plays,” Ensminger says. “They understand that we want the freshest player out there that has the best chance to make a play. I tried to do it with Cooper that after about 12 plays Cole went in the game. We just rotated them after that. It’s going to be the same way this year. I don’t want Cole out there for more than 12 plays.
"We also plan on using more two tight end sets so the young kids are going to be in there," Ensminger adds. "We’re going to keep a tally of who has played what during a game. Cole is going to get the majority of the reps, but there will be plenty of opportunities because of the different sets for all of them to average around 25 snaps a game.
“Cole is our number one guy and he can run some ball control stuff,” Ensminger adds. “Every now and then he can sneak down the field, but the two redshirt freshmen bring that to the ball game. They’ve gotten a lot better at blocking. They don’t mind sticking their heads in there. They’re not perfect at it yet, but they can be a significant factor in the passing game because they can stretch the field vertically.”
2006 Inside the Auburn Tigers Auburn Football Guide
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