Blocker becomes receiving threat
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — For three weeks, Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen quietly went about his blocking duties, waiting for some passes to be thrown his direction.
“I just had to be patient with it,” he said. “I knew my time was coming to get some touches.”
That patience paid off Saturday against South Carolina. Lutzenkirchen had three second-half catches for 22 yards and a touchdown in Auburn’s 35-27 win.
The Tigers hope it’s the start of a trend. Lutzenkirchen, a sophomore, has added to his duties this year. He has played the traditional hand-on-the-ground tight end spot but has done more things in space, working at Auburn’s “3” position or H-back.
“The great thing about Philip is he’s a dual guy,” Tigers coach Gene Chizik said. “He’s becoming a more physical presence when he puts his hand down on the ground as a tight end, which we need. He’s a great receiver; he’s got great hands. He’s really becoming very comfortable with both of those roles.”
Versatility is key in Gus Malzahn’s offense, which pushes the pace. Substitutions slow things down, so players who can play more than one spot are preferred.
If Lutzenkirchen didn’t play H-back, he might not be involved in the passing game much at all. Tight ends have had a minor role in Malzahn’s offense.
In his four previous years as a college offensive coordinator — 2006 at Arkansas, 2007-08 at Tulsa and last year at Auburn — the most production Malzahn has gotten from a traditional tight end in one season is 12 catches (Ben Cleveland for Arkansas), 144 yards (Tommy Trott for Auburn) and two touchdowns (done by four different players).
Prior to Lutzenkirchen’s 7-yard screen pass in the third quarter, Auburn had gone nearly six full games without a tight end catching a pass, dating back to Trott’s 34-yard reception Nov. 14 at Georgia.
Lutzenkirchen caught five passes for 66 yards and two scores in limited playing time last year. But if he remains an option at H-back — and given Mario Fannin’s shoulder injury and history of fumbles, it’s a distinct possibility — he could have a bigger pass-catching role.
At 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds, Lutzenkirchen is bulkier than typical H-backs in Malzahn’s offense. Charles Clay, who caught more than 100 passes in Malzahn’s two years at Tulsa, weighed 235. Fannin and Eric Smith, who have filled the role at Auburn, weigh 228 and 240, respectively.
Despite his size, Lutzenkirchen has receiver skills. While a senior at Lassiter High in Marietta, Ga., he caught 72 passes for 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns.
“We knew that in high school he had great hands,” Malzahn said.
If Lutzenkirchen can handle the dual role, he could be valuable to an offense looking to diversify its passing game. Questions arose after quarterback Cam Newton completed passes to only three receivers in the Clemson game. Against South Carolina, he connected with six players.
“If you ask anyone, I think everyone wants the ball more,” Lutzenkirchen said. “We’ve got so many weapons on this offense. Cam’s doing a good job spreading it around.
“When you got guys like Darvin Adams, who’s probably one of top receivers in the SEC last year, guys like (Terrell Zachery), I’m not complaining. Whenever I get the ball, I’m going to do what I can with it.”
He did everything right Saturday. His touchdown catch came out of the wildcat formation, with an unbalanced line. After starting in a down position with his hand on the ground, Lutzenkirchen got free off the line and was left alone in the back of the end zone.
Newton faked a handoff on the speed sweep and lobbed an easy touchdown pass to him.
“It was my time, I guess,” Lutzenkirchen said. “I was open.”