Chip Lindsey adding ‘new wrinkles’ to Auburn football’s underwhelming red-zone offense

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AUBURN, Ala. — Red-zone touchdowns weren’t common in Auburn football games last season. While that was a great sign for the Tigers’ defense — which ranked third nationally in that category — it was tough to swallow for their offense.

Auburn left a lot of possible points on the field inside the 20-yard line, ranking 97th in the FBS in percentage of red-zone trips that ended in touchdowns. Kicker Daniel Carlson bailed out the Tigers repeatedly with 14 field goals from close range.

This year, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn has made improvement in that area one of new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey’s biggest missions.

MORE: Auburn’s run-pass balance in 2017 won’t be defined by numbers

“I know Chip has worked extremely hard,” Malzahn said Wednesday. “We’ve had all kinds of red-zone [practice] versus the defense and all that. Lot of situations. Chip brought a few new wrinkles, too. That’s always good.”

Auburn desperately needs something new in the red zone on offense.

The Tigers fell well below the mark they set in 2013 under Malzahn. That year, Auburn ranked 13th nationally in touchdown percentage inside the red zone. The Tigers won the SEC championship that season and made it to the final BCS National Championship Game, where they lost to Florida State.

“When we’ve been really good,” Malzahn said, “we’ve been really good in the red zone.”

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Auburn running back Kerryon Johnson (21) was a valuable weapon for the Tigers in the red zone last fall. (Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Whenever the Tigers were “really good” inside the red zone in 2016, success usually came on the ground. Auburn had 25 red-zone rushing touchdowns last season, good for 23rd nationally. Ten came from junior Kerryon Johnson in Auburn’s wildcat package.

Last year, Lindsey ran a modified version of the wildcat — known at Arizona State as “Sparky” to avoid resemblance to rival Arizona’s mascot — with success. That could potentially be a running-game wrinkle for Auburn inside the 20.

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And while Malzahn said Wednesday “you’ve got to be able to run the ball in” to be one of the best red-zone offenses in college football, he also stressed the importance of the passing attack in those situations.

Auburn only had 5 passing touchdowns in the red zone last season. Only seven FBS teams had fewer. Five were triple-option schools — New Mexico, Air Force, Army, Tulane and Georgia Tech. The other two were Group of Five teams that both went 3-9 — Utah State and UConn, which finished with the nation’s worst scoring offense.

“You’ve got to be very good on third downs throwing the football in the red zone,” Malzahn said. “That’s always been a big key.”

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While he’s known for his downfield passing strengths, Jarrett Stidham excelled in the red zone at Baylor. (Wade Rackley/Auburn Athletics)

In his small sample size at Baylor, new Auburn starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham was outstanding in the red zone. He went 7-for-9 passing with 6 touchdowns in 2015 — more scores than Auburn had with 33 attempts in 2016.

Stidham won’t be the only newcomer who could bring much-needed wrinkles to Auburn’s red-zone offense.

JUCO transfer Sal Cannella — a hybrid player at tight end and wide receiver — has the potential to be a game-changer for the Tigers inside the 20 this fall. The 6-foot-5 sophomore is Auburn’s tallest receiving threat, and he has plenty of experience catching the ball in those situations.

“He serves as a matchup nightmare, really,” Auburn receivers coach Kodi Burns said. “Once you’ve sent a 6-foot-5 guy out there on a cornerback, it’s a little different than a 6-foot-1 guy or a 6-foot guy. … [With his] ability to catch the ball in the red zone in tight windows, bigger bodies for quarterbacks are always good.”

MORE: Sal Cannella brings new ‘attitude and edge’ to Auburn football’s offense

The last time Auburn had a rangy hybrid threat came in 2013 and 2014 with C.J. Uzomah. Now a tight end with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, Uzomah had 6 touchdowns in two seasons for Auburn, and all but one of them came on plays that started inside the red zone.

Malzahn hopes Lindsey can utilize Cannella and other big bodies to bring some of that red-zone success back to the Plains.

“[Uzomah] was very successful, so those bigger bodies that are experienced do nothing but help as that field condenses, because those windows are very small,” Malzahn said. “You have to earn it down there in the passing game.”

The post Chip Lindsey adding ‘new wrinkles’ to Auburn football’s underwhelming red-zone offense appeared first on SEC Country.

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