One of the stark contrasts between the tenures of Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin is the use of tight ends in the Auburn offense. Harsin uses tight ends a lot, while they were rarely used by Malzahn in the passing game.
During Malzahn’s eight years as head coach of the Tigers, only two tight ends saw seasons with over 10 catches — C.J. Uzomah in 2013–14 and Sal Canella in 2018.
Now, just five games into the season, tight end John Samuel Shenker leads Auburn in both catches and receiving yards on the year, with 18 catches for 236 yards.
“Through the year and how things have gone I've realized my role has become more crucial in the passing game,” Shenker said. “And it's been awesome to get into the pass game and to get going. Last week was a lot of fun.”
Shenker had a breakout performance last Saturday against LSU in Auburn’s first win in Death Valley since 1999. The senior from Albany, Georgia hauled in five catches for 102 yards, including a 33-yard reception on a scramble play from quarterback Bo Nix.
The 102 receiving yards by Shenker marked the first 100-yard game by an Auburn tight end since Andy Fuller’s 115 yards against Florida in 1994.
“That's a huge (confidence boost),” Shenker said. “And not beating them in 20 years, I mean I was 1 (year old) when we last beat them, so that just adds to confidence, especially the first game to kind of boost you and get you going into the heart of the conference.”
Oddly enough, Fuller’s quarterback in that game was Patrick Nix, Bo’s father.
“I saw some stuff on Twitter about (Fuller’s 1994 game), which was crazy because that was Bo’s dad that was the quarterback that time. So, that's kind of a cool, little experience to have with Bo.”
Through Auburn’s five games, Shenker has already doubled his receptions and yards from 2020, when he finished with nine catches for 97 yards for the season.
“Well, I think when you come in with a new coaching staff everything's back open,” Shenker said. “You have a new chance to prove yourself and what you think you're good at.”
Despite playing from behind in three-straight games, the Auburn offense seems to have taken a step in developing the offense to where they want it to be. The slow starts have been hurting the team, causing them to play with a losing score, but continue to finish strong and play all four quarters.
“(Against LSU), we started slow, but we stayed in the game late in the second quarter to give us a chance in the second half,” Shenker said.”
As the gauntlet of Auburn’s schedule continues this Saturday against Georgia, it will be important for the Tigers to keep using tight ends in the offense. Whether it is using them in run blocking or in the passing game, Shenker and the other tight ends on Auburn’s roster have stepped up in Harsin’s new offense, with sophomore Tyler Fromm also getting in on the action, catching three passes for 40 yards and a score of his own last week against LSU.
“On the offensive side, we like to mess around with each other, give each other hard times, but we get in the heat of battle we always have each other's backs,” Shenker said. “And you can see that in the way you play for each other.”