AUBURN, Ala. — As Mario Fannin began practice Tuesday night at Auburn’s loosely defined H-back position, a new face joined him in the rotation line — freshman Anthony Gulley.
The two would be hard to mistake. Fannin stands 5-fooot-11, 225 pounds, a rock solid running back who’s bulked up to expand his role. Gulley’s a slight 5-foot-9, 176-pound receiver who is one of the lightest, speediest players on the team, a curious choice for an H-back position consisting of mostly tight ends and fullbacks.
But Auburn’s players simply go where they’re told, placing an unwavering trust in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s plans.
“Coach Malzahn is a genius when it comes to finding playmakers with his offensive scheme,” Fannin said. “He knows exactly who he wants at every spot and where he wants to work people in at.”
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While moving at a breakneck pace is the No. 1 goal of Malzahn’s offense, having versatility in its players is a close No. 2. H-backs will branch out in all directions, some playing as tight ends, receivers or running backs. Wide receivers will swap playing inside and out. Tight ends will on occasion split out wide. And a variety of players have been tried in the Tigers’ Wildcat set.
The goal is simple: prevent the defense from having time to react accordingly.
“What we don’t want to do is have to change personnel,” wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor said. “You change personnel, you give the defense time to change personnel.”
The H-back, or “3” in Auburn’s lingo, is the most versatile role. Fannin serves as the Swiss Army knife of the group, a multi-purpose player who can be used in any offensive skill position on the field.
But beyond him is an interesting group of players. Tight ends Tommy Trott (6-5, 243 pounds), Gabe McKenzie (6-5, 252) and Philip Lutzenkirchen (6-4, 262) have all worked at the position this August, making Gulley’s addition to the group, even if only for a day, more curious. There’s a simple explanation.
“(The position) is different on different formations,” said Gulley, who spends the majority of his time split out wide at Auburn’s “2” position.
“He’s a pretty fast guy,” Fannin said, “so they’re trying to use him with his speed. And he can catch the ball great.”
The tight ends have also moved around. While Trott and Lutzenkirchen have worked as H-backs, they’ve also practiced in the slot as receivers (the “5” in Malzahn’s system). Lutzenkirchen dabbled in a bit of everything at Lassiter High in Marietta, big enough to be a tight end but quick enough and with the pass-catching ability to be a play-maker.
“I really think he’s the ideal guy that you’re looking for,” Taylor said, “because he’s 260 pounds but he runs like he’s 230 pounds.”
“He can do a lot of different things,” Malzahn said. “He’s a smart kid. He understands the game. We need him to be on the field at times this year.”
Since the traditional tight end spot seems to have little place in Auburn’s offense, Trott, who caught 20 passes for 201 yards last year, has spent a large chunk of his time as a receiver.
“He likes being out there on that perimeter,” Taylor said. “When you tell a tell a tight end that he can split out wide, oh boy, it’s like taking an offensive tackle and throwing him a screen. He wants to touch that football. That’s like a bonus for those guys.”
The embodiment of Malzahn’s preference for flexibility is former quarterback Kodi Burns, who switched to wide receiver after Chris Todd was named the starter last week. Burns remains a viable option as the Wildcat quarterback because he is elusive and can keep defenses honest with his ability to throw.
It’s all about options for the adaptable Malzahn, whose reputation for being an offensive innovator started in the Arkansas high school ranks. He has said repeatedly that he will be flexible with his playcalling in order to get the best 11 players on the field as much as possible.
“We have a philosophy. It kind of goes back to my high school background,” Malzahn said. “You adapt to your strengths of your players. And I think that gives you an advantage.”