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.
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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.
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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