One of Auburn's biggest problems on offense is becoming all too familiar
The Tigers' proven playmakers through the air are slot guys and tight ends. That is, once again, narrowing an already-limited passing game.
WR Jay Fair (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
A little more than a month ago, a couple of days after Auburn escaped Cal with a narrow win, Hugh Freeze had three things to say about receivers Jay Fair and Ja’Varrius Johnson:
They needed more touches.
They were Auburn’s best receivers.
He wished they were both bigger.
Four games later, those words are still ringing quite true for an Auburn passing attack that is statistically one of the worst among power-conference teams.
A lot of the passing game woes have to do with the play of the quarterback. But the weapons at his disposal have been quite limited.
According to Pro Football Focus, Fair and Johnson are far and away Auburn’s leaders at wide receiver in yards per route run, a strong measurement for receiver efficiency. Fair is averaging 2.05 per route run, while Johnson is at 1.70.
The next closest receiver on the team, at 1.29, is Malcolm Johnson Jr., who recorded two of his three receptions this season — and 59 of his 73 yards overall — in the final quarter of a season-opening blowout win over UMass.
Fair is leading Auburn in almost every major receiving category: receptions (21), targets (30), yards (232) and touchdowns (2), along with that lead in yards per route run. He ranks second behind tight end Rivaldo Fairweather in contested catches (5) and quarterback rating when targeted (101.0).
Ja’Varrius Johnson, who was Auburn’s leading receiver last fall, has battled injuries through the first half of the 2023 season. He played against UMass and Cal before sitting out the Samford game on offense. He played 23 offensive snaps against Texas A&M but didn’t see the field in either the Georgia or LSU games.
When Auburn has Fair and Johnson both healthy, they have a combination of reliable playmakers. They are Auburn’s top two receivers in terms of catch rate — that is, the percentage of targets that turn into receptions — and neither have dropped a ball this year.
There’s just one big problem: They’re both small. Fair is listed at 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds. Johnson is listed at 5-foot-10 and 168 pounds. Fair and Johnson have played 133 of their 154 combined offensive snaps (86.4%) in the slot, the tried-and-true domain of smaller receivers.
The problem is that you can only really play one small slot receiver at a time, especially if you’re a team like Auburn that wants to take advantage of its deeper tight end and running back rooms. Even when the Tigers go four- or five-wide, there’s usually a bigger target in the slot.
And that situation could be getting even more crowded. With Johnson not playing at LSU last Saturday, Auburn used the post-off week matchup to get Ohio State transfer Caleb Burton III truly involved for the first time this season. Burton started the game and caught Auburn’s first pass of the night.
“It's great that you can honor players sometimes, because they really did things the right way: They practiced the right way. They're doing the things that we say are the standard in this program,” Freeze said Monday. “Caleb has done that, and it's exciting to see him get his first reps. I expect him to get more.”
Burton, of course, is listed at 5-foot-11 and 171 pounds. Of the 12 passing plays he’s been in on this season, Burton has lined up in the slot on all but one of them.
Meanwhile, Auburn has a real issue out wide.
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