Auburn is a consensus favorite to contend for the SEC Championship in 2015. The Tigers are coming off an 8-5 (4-4 SEC) record and fourth-place ranking in the SEC West, but were several late-game lapses from challenging arch rival Alabama for the division title.
The team also had one of the most impressive offseasons of any SEC program. Auburn addressed its defensive woes — a No. 61 overall FBS ranking and 26.7 points allowed per game average — by hiring Will Muschamp as its coordinator last December. Muschamp inherits a team that has one of the conference’s best linebacker duos in Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost, as well as a healthy Carl Lawson who missed the entire 2014 season recovering from ACL surgery that followed a dominant freshman campaign.
On offense, Auburn will replace several departing starters but shouldn’t see much of a downgrade at any key position. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson is expected to be a Heisman Trophy candidate after spending the majority of his first two seasons as a backup to Nick Marshall. Either top JUCO transfer Jovon Robinson or former four-star prospect Roc Thomas should excel as a replacement for SEC leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne.
But the vacancy at H-back following the departure of senior Brandon Fulse has received less attention. Obviously, H-back won’t receive the attention of a QB or tailback battle, but it is a vital position to Auburn’s offensive scheme.
The h-back will provide Johnson with a pass blocker in the backfield and a lead blocker for Robinson and Thomas. Those duties were handled by Fulse in 2014, who became a better blocker through his first season as a starter. The senior replaced Jay Prosch, who like him the following year, was a senior helped Marshall and Tre Mason lead a successful rushing attack.
In 2015, Malzahn will chose between redshirt freshman Kamryn Pettway and true freshman Chandler Cox. So far, Pettway is the favorite to start when the Tigers open their season on Sept. 5 against Louisville.
“I really think he’s getting more comfortable at that position,” Malzahn told the Montgomery Advertiser of Pettway earlier this week. “That’s a very important position, as well you know. We ask that guy to do a lot of different things, he’s got to block, he’s got to catch the football, he’s got to block in space, he’s got to protect. The fact that he played tailback in high school, I really think has helped him. Chandler Cox is another guy that is very similar. Both of those guys are young and can do a lot of different things.”
While the position is important, it won’t matter who starts for Auburn in 2015. Both players have strong qualities to excel early in their college careers and should make a quick adjustment to the position.
Pettway has the advantage of a year’s worth of experience, although Cox has also been enrolled since January. So both players have spent the entire offseason working to better understand their potential role in Malzahn’s scheme.
Assistant coach Scott Fountain told 247Sports that he is confident in both players and noted what each brings to the position.
“They are doing a good job. Kam has really good pop at the point of attack. Chandler is a real football savvy guy, really understands the game, brings a lot to the table,” said Fountain, who coaches the Tigers’ tight ends and H-backs. “I think we have two really good players.”
He also credited both players’ strengths as ball carriers and receiving options, comparing both favorably to Prosch, who’s primary strength was blocking. Obviously, that’s what both players will need to provide to an already loaded offense, but it’s a nice perk to have yet another option on short-yardage runs and dump passes.
H-back is a vital position to Auburn’s success and Fulse’s departure needs to be addressed. However, the Tigers should be fine with either Pettway or Cox starting on opening day. Both freshmen possess strong attributes that should aid a talented offensive group in both the passing and rushing attack.