When Kodi Burns graciously agreed to switch positions after losing out on the starting quarterback job in August, Auburn coaches promised that the junior would still be a major weapon in the Tigers’ offense.
So far it’s proven to be more than just lip-service.
Burns has thrived as the triggerman in Auburn’s Wildcat formation through the first two games, scoring four touchdowns and throwing for another. In the SEC, only Florida’s Tim Tebow has accounted for more points this season.
“Not only is he a great person, he’s a great competitor, he’s a great football player,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said of Burns. “We’ve got to find guys like that a place on our football team that can help us win.”
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The Wildcat formation, which Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn helped popularize at the college level while at Arkansas and later Tulsa, is the perfect fit for Burns, a shifty runner whose ability to pass helps keep defenses honest.
The single-wing formation is effective for a number of reasons, perhaps most of all for its simplicity. It essentially eliminates the quarterback as an intermediary for getting the ball to a play-maker, which means the offense has an extra blocker on the play.
Once the center snaps the ball, Burns has three primary options, which can be predetermined or read once the play begins. He can:
1) Hand the ball off on a sweep to a speedy running back/wide receiver (in Auburn’s case, Onterio McCalebb), who lines up out wide but goes in motion prior to the snap …
2) Fake that handoff and immediately turn upfield to find a running hole or …
3) Fake the initial handoff and look to throw a pass to a receiver downfield.
“There’s a lot of moving parts to it,” Chizik said.
Auburn has utilized all three options during the first two weeks of the season. Burns’ four touchdown runs have all been from 1 yard out, essentially making the 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior the Tigers’ goal line running back.
“Contact’s not much to me,” said Burns, who has 17 carries for 55 yards this season. “I’m pretty fit. I weigh about 210-215 on a good day. I can take the pounding from some linebackers, so it’s really not a problem.”
McCalebb, who has been timed at 4.2 seconds in the 40-yard dash, has been a perfect sweep option, a threat to reach the corner and bust a big run on the edge.
And the one time Auburn passed out of the formation, the defense didn’t have anybody within 10 yards of the intended receiver. On a designed play during the third quarter of the Mississippi State game, Burns faked the handoff, rolled to his left to draw the defense up and lobbed a 13-yard pass to tight end Phillip Lutzenkirchen for an easy score.
“Right now it’s effective simply because there are some new things off of it that we can do,” Chizik said. “OK. After four or five weeks, now, you run out of things and you just got to execute better than the other guy.”
Although the offense tips its hand that the Wildcat is coming simply from its alignment (the starting quarterback, in this case Chris Todd, usually splits out wide as a decoy), defenses still have a hard time stopping it.
“It’s math,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “It’s how many players you’ve got in the box. Because not only do they spread the field, but then you have to account for the quarterback as a runner, which in a traditional offense you don’t. If you’re going to play with a seven-man box, they’ve got seven blockers and a ballcarrier if they line up with a tight end and a running back. So you’re minus-1, because they’ve got a hat for a hat.”
If a defense counters by putting extra players near the line, it forces its cornerbacks to play man-to-man coverage on the receivers with no safety help, making it vulnerable to big plays.
“If something creases you, it’s going to the house,” Roof said. “It’s a big one.”
It helps Auburn’s situation that Burns is already on the field a large portion of the time as a wide receiver. That allows the Tigers to seamlessly switch to the Wildcat formation without changing personnel, preventing the defense from making major substitutions.
It all but guarantees that Burns will continue to have a major role in the offense throughout the season.
“He gives us a lot of flexibility, a lot of versatility,” Malzahn said. “He can do a lot of things. He’s a very valuable player on our offense.”
Note: Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman was named SEC Lineman of the Week.
The senior registered three tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown in the Tigers’ 49-24 victory against Mississippi State last Saturday.
It’s the second time the 6-foot-3, 261-pound lineman has won the award. He was honored in October of 2007 for his performance against Ole Miss.