With receivers Will Hastings (26 receptions, 524 yards, 4 TDs in 2017) and Eli Stove (580 yards from scrimmage, 2 TDs) already limited in practices due to spring ACL tears, Auburn saw sophomore wideout Marquis McClain (undisclosed injury) slip into the dreaded orange non-contact jersey Tuesday at the team’s first full-pads practice.
And as the number of healthy and experienced pass catchers dwindles, tight end Sal Cannella has seen his responsibilities heighten in fall camp.
“Sal (Cannella) is a really versatile guy,” Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “When Will (Hastings) and Eli (Stove) got hurt, he increased his role playing in the slot. He can help us in a lot of ways — he’s a long, athletic guy.”
When the 6-foot-5, 232-pounder arrived prior to last season as the No. 1 JUCO tight end from Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, Auburn fans bought stock in a new wrinkle to the offense — and understandably so. Cannella looks like a slimmer C.J. Uzomah, and his JUCO numbers were elite at 15 yards per catch and seven touchdowns in 2016.
The transfer didn’t live up to the hype.
The former LSU Tiger’s 19-yard reception in the opener against Georgia Southern would account for over double his yardage for the entire season. Much to Lindsey’s chagrin, Cannella — along with the rest of Auburn’s mid-range passing game — was inconsistent at best; electrifying screens to Ryan Davis and long-ball shots to Darius Slayton allowed Jarrett Stidham to succeed without a tight end.
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Against slower linebackers in the middle of the field, Cannella is an absolute mismatch. What hindered his progression in the offense last season was drops; of his eight targets in 2017, he caught just three for 31 yards, and none in the last five games.
In addition to H-back and tight end, the one-year veteran Cannella is working at slot receiver, along with Auburn's stable of blue-chip freshmen.
“He had a very good spring and he’s showing some flashes here in the fall,” Lindsey said. “I think he’ll have a big role for us.”
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