Offseason Observations: JSS's journey to Media Days, some defense love and basketball's Israel tour
As the summer starts to wind down, let's take a closer look at some Tigers who will be front and center on SEC Network on Thursday morning — and next month.
TE John Samuel Shenker (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
When Auburn goes through the SEC Media Days circus in Atlanta on Thursday morning, Tank Bigsby and Derick Hall — the Tigers’ best bets for first-team All-SEC honors — will represent the team with head coach Bryan Harsin.
They’ll be joined by John Samuel Shenker, the sixth-year senior tight end. And to say Shenker’s journey from where he began his Auburn career to being one of the faces of the program was unexpected is quite the understatement.
Bigsby was a top-40 recruit who had a scholarship offer from virtually every powerhouse in college football. Hall was a top-150 recruit and one of the 10 best edge rushers in the country coming out of high school. It’s no surprise to see either of them turn into leaders and future NFL draft picks.
But Shenker? He was ranked No. 1,522 in the 247Sports Composite in the class of 2017. The in-house 247 rankings had him down as a two-star, which you hardly ever see at the SEC level. His only other Power 5 scholarship offer was Wake Forest. His only other official visit was to Georgia Southern, which was not too far from his hometown of Moultrie, Ga.
Shenker was a better baseball prospect for most of his high school career, a two-time state champion and a member of the USA U-17 development program. But he decided he wanted to go the football route for his college career. He transferred from a small private school to South Georgia titan Colquitt County. He spent countless hours with a private trainer to develop into a tight end who could hang at the next level.
Auburn offered him a week before National Signing Day in 2017. Chip Lindsey, Auburn’s new offensive coordinator, viewed him as a blueprint for what he wanted at the position moving forward after Gus Malzahn’s run of specialist H-backs like Jay Prosch and Chandler Cox1. He was a last-minute addition to the class, jumping on the SEC offer over the Sun Belt and FCS ones he already had.
Shenker broke through into Auburn’s offensive plans as a redshirt freshman in 2018. In 2019, he became a more regular starter, even though the targets never quite came in Malzahn’s offense. He returned to the baseball diamond, playing two seasons for Butch Thompson’s Tigers as a hitting specialist. In 2020, he played the most snaps of his career to date but only had nine receptions on the season.
Then Auburn hired Harsin, a head coach with a history of more pro-style personnel packages and heavier tight end usage. Shenker went from a role player who mostly blocked to a crucial piece to the offense. No skill position player had more offensive snaps last season than Shenker, who finished fourth on the team in receptions (33) and yardage (413). Both of those were Auburn single-season records.
And Shenker is back in 2022, using the free year granted to players who were on the roster during the COVID season. He was a highly vocal supporter of Harsin and his staff during the internal investigation this past winter. He’ll undoubtedly do the same thing in front of the media Thursday morning in Atlanta.
Shenker’s journey to Media Days is a remarkable one. He’ll be the first Auburn tight end since 2014 to go to SEC Media Days and the sixth all-time.2
Recruiting rankings matter on a macro level. You need more Bigsbys and Halls on your team to compete for championships, especially in the SEC. But on a micro level, there’s always room for under-the-radar recruits such as Shenker or former No. 989 recruit-turned-second round NFL Draft pick Roger McCreary to break out.
Shenker making it to this point as a Tiger is something of a feel-good story, but it’s much more than that. He’s one of Auburn’s team leaders and someone the staff wants on the field constantly. He broke records last season and could be an even bigger part of the passing-game puzzle, considering the lack of established experience at wide receiver. He’s turned into a big deal on the football field.
Not bad for a former 2-star.
EDGE Derick Hall (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
A lot of love for Auburn’s 2022 defense
Throughout this offseason, there’s been a feeling at The Observer that Auburn’s defense was being underrated by the college football media at large.