Four Auburn Players Poised to Have a Breakout Year on Offense in 2017
Nate Craig-Myers catches a pass against ULM in 2016. (photo: USATODAY Sports)
It’s just 12 days till kick off for the Auburn football team. After finishing second in the SEC Western Division in 2016, the Tigers enter the 2017 season with several new faces along with several questions.
Perhaps the biggest of which is how much can the Tiger offense rebound from a disappointing 8–5 season that saw the offensive production grow stagnant with late season injuries at quarterback and running back.
New offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is expected to add some new schemes, giving plenty of opportunities for players to have a breakout year.
This week we will look at four players from the offense whom I believe are poised to make a big impact. Next week we will look at four defensive players that could be very important in helping the Tigers contend for a championship.
Here are four offensive players set to have a breakout season heading into 2017:
* Nate Craig-Myers, WR
The Auburn receiving corps took a back seat to the running game in the Tiger offense last year. In an effort to improve the air attack, Malzahn has emphasized receivers in the last two recruiting classes and hired passing guru Chip Lindsey to open things up.
Near the top of the touted receiver group is Craig-Myers, who came in ranked as the nation’s No. 6 wide receiver. He hasn’t done much since arriving on the Plains, playing behind Tony Stevens and dealing with injuries. In fact, Kyle Davis got more snaps last year due to Nate’s being banged up most of the year. But the former five-star is in his best health since arriving on campus and he had five receptions for 154 yards in April on A-Day.
Adding to his good health is the fact he’s developed a good chemistry with the new quarterback Jarrett Stidham. “I feel like now, as we’re progressing, we’re getting better,” said Nate. “We’re clicking on the right timing… It’s a pretty good relationship.” In addition, the 6′ 2″ receiver is a good blocker, an important commodity in the Malzahn offense.
* Prince Tega Wanagho, offensive tackle
Wanagho is a remarkable story. With only one year of football experience, he was ranked by Rivals, Scout, 247 Sports, and ESPN among the top 10 strong-side defensive ends in his class. Recruited to use his height and speed at defensive end, he was moved last year to the O-line.
A swimmer and basketball player in high school, he has tremendous athleticism. And at 6’ 7” his long arms will help him both with the pass rush and with blocking assignments. Auburn offensive guard Mike Horton said, “His athleticism is one of the biggest things that I think helps him. And he’s aggressive, too.”
Wanagho played in 10 games last season for the Tigers as the backup to left tackle Darius James. But Coach Herb Hand said, “From where he was at this time last year to where he is now is an astronomical difference.” And it now appears James will move to the right side, and the Prince will take over the all important left tackle position guarding the quarterback’s blind side. That’s a big assignment to be trusted with, and the veteran coach Hand believes he can handle it.
* Sal Cannella, tight end/WR
A versatile player, Sal Cannela could play tight end or wide receiver. The tight end position has not been utilized much in the Malzahn passing game except for blocking assignments, but when the TE is part of the passing game it brings another dimension to the table. The Tigers have thrown a forward pass to the tight end only two times in the past two seasons and both were touchdowns. That is expected to change under Chip Lindsey, who has a reputation for incorporating tight ends into his game plan.
Enter Canella, who caught 31 receptions for 521 yards and seven scores last year at Scottsdale Community College where he finished his time in Arizona as the No. 1 JUCO tight end in the country.
His versatility reminds Auburn tailback Kerryon Johnson of former Tiger, C.J. Uzomah. “He catches a lot of contested balls, he’s a big target, he knows how to use his body to block off defenders,” said Johnson. “He knows how to go and get the ball. He’s a sneaky athlete. I think he’s going to be very big for us this year … I think he’s got it all.”
While Jalen Harris seems to be entrenched in the position, expect Cannela to also get plenty of playing time both at TE and receiver. Lindsey may also run a two TE set, lining Harris up beside the tackle and moving Cannella out wide as a receiver making the defense having to respect two big guys.
* Jarrett Stidham, quarterback
The last name on the list is no surprise. Jarrett Stidham came to Auburn as the nation’s No. 1 JUCO transfer. He threw for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns in three starts as a freshman at Baylor. Coming off the bench in his first career appearance, he threw for 419 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas State.
When he announced his intention to transfer, the national media immediately focused on where he would land. Through spring and fall camp he has not disappointed. Jarrett received the A-Day MVP award after hitting four passes of 30 yards or more while completing 16 of his 20 passes for 267 yards—in just one half of play.
Many think he may be the best passer that Malzahn has ever had. In addition, he will be paired with the most touted group of wide receivers that Auburn has fielded in a long time. If he can live up to his billing, the Tigers should have a big year in 2017.
Those are my picks. I would be interested in seeing yours.