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Wendy Fawthrop | The Orange County Register | August 19, 2018

Can anyone replace Johnson in Auburn's Wildcat formation?

AUBURN — The mere mention of the "CoxCat" formation still makes some Auburn fans shudder, like a painful memory or a bad dream.

It's a remnant of the Rhett Lashlee era, a formation that first came to be during a season-opening loss to Clemson in 2016 that most on the Plains would rather forget. It started with a direct snap to H-back Chandler Cox, and it ended with four carries for nine yards and, later that year, an interception against Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

So you can understand the moment of panic some fans might have experienced this past Monday, when Cox was one of the players spotted taking direct snaps from center (running back JaTarvious Whitlow was the other) during the 20-minute window reporters were allowed inside Auburn's indoor practice facility.

 
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But the fact of the matter is that the Tigers need somebody to quarterback their Wildcat offense. Kerryon Johnson was masterfully efficient in that role during his SEC Offensive Player of the Year junior campaign last season, but he's a Detroit Lion now.

Can anyone on the roster replace him? That's one of the questions Auburn is trying to answer this fall.

What is the Wildcat?

For anyone not familiar with the Wildcat, it is an offensive formation in which the ball is snapped directly to a player of another position lined up at quarterback. For Auburn, that player was typically Johnson last season, though running back Kamryn Pettway and backup quarterback Malik Willis also received a few opportunities.

The Wildcat usually features an unbalanced offensive line (two tackles to one side) and a player running across the formation in a sweep, but there a few different variations teams can use. Johnson often kept the ball himself last season, but he also handed to Kam Martin out of the backfield on a read-option and to wide receiver Eli Stove on the jet sweep last year. The Tigers also threw the ball out of the formation four times.

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It's not an offensive scheme, but rather an element that can be installed into different offenses. The NFL's Miami Dolphins made national headlines when they began running it to great effect during the 2008 season, but it was a trend at the college level long before that. Kansas State coach Bill Snyder popularized it in the 1990s, and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn ran it with Darren McFadden and Felix Jones at Arkansas in 2006.

Has it been effective for Auburn?

It certainly was in Chip Lindsey's first season as offensive coordinator. It wasn't a big-play offense by any means, but it was wildly efficient.

Not counting the plays in the final minutes of games where it was salting away double-digit victories, Auburn snapped the ball to a player not named Jarrett Stidham 51 times — 45 times to Johnson, four times to Pettway and twice to Willis.

Thirty of those 51 plays came on first or second down, with the other 21 coming on third or fourth down and less than 4 yards to go. Eight came in goal-to-go situations.

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Auburn gained 284 yards on those plays (206 rushing yards on 47 carries, 78 receiving yards on 3-of-4 passing), which is good for an average of 5.57 yards per play (4.38 yards per carry, 26 yards per passing completion). More important than the yardage total, though, is the outcomes -- of those 51 plays, 28 resulted in either a first down (21) or a touchdown (7). That's nearly 55 percent.

Pettway scored two of his six touchdowns in 2017 out of the Wildcat, with both of those coming against Mercer. Johnson totaled five of his 21 on plays where he took a direct snap, rushing for three against Missouri and one against LSU before throwing a touchdown pass to Nate Craig-Myers against Alabama in the Iron Bowl.

Overall, the Tigers ran the Wildcat on just 5 percent of their 1,024 offensive snaps last season, but they racked up 9 percent of their 312 first downs and 12 percent of their 58 touchdowns on those 51 plays.

Who could run it this season?

Back to the original question. Which begs another question: Is Auburn's Wildcat package effective on its own, or was it effective last season because of Johnson?

"Kerryon Johnson was a really good person to have in it because he could run it. He knew how to verbalize things to the offensive line and, heck, we were able to throw out of it a little bit last year," assistant coach Tim Horton said Thursday. "We have some good candidates. In fact, we looked at some candidates last week, and they did nice jobs. And so we've only put in two or three plays in that package at this point, but I think it is something that could potentially be used this year. And I feel good about whoever that quarterback/running back might be."

The candidates are Cox, Whitlow and Willis. Versatile true freshman running back Harold Joiner has also received a few opportunities, but Horton said the first three have been the focus.

Here's a look at what each could bring to the role:

Chandler Cox: Yes, the results were less than stellar the last time Auburn tried this, and yes, Cox did say last spring that the CoxCat was "definitely a thing of the past." But if he does get another chance to try it this season, the senior H-back said he wouldn't be doing "any of that spinning stuff" he did in 2016, which you might remember from a disastrous fourth-and-3 play that resulted in an interception against Alabama and proved to be Auburn's final offensive snap of the 2016 Iron Bowl.

Cox has carried only eight times for 15 yards and one touchdown over his three seasons on the Plains but does have experience running a single-wing offense, having racked up 3,000 total yards and 36 touchdowns (21 rushing, 15 passing) during his career at Apopka (Florida) High.

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"I'll do anything. If they want me back there, if they want me at receiver, if they want me at H-back, I'll do it," Cox said. "They wanted me to take some snaps and so I did. We'll see where it goes. I'm not so sure what we're going to do with it, but I'll be ready just in case."

JaTarvious Whitlow:This is perhaps the most intriguing option. The 6-foot, 216-pound redshirt freshman is one of the running backs Horton said is separating himself from the rest of the competition, but he also has plenty of experience running an offense: He played quarterback down the road at LaFayette High, where he totaled 2,282 passing yards, 2,147 rushing yards and 59 total touchdowns as a senior.

"The part that impressed me the other day when we installed it with him is there was no hesitation," Horton said. "He knew had to communicate and verbalize and get the call and call the play in the huddle and do all that communication stuff, which for running backs, particularly if they've never done it, can take them a while. He jumped in there like he was Joe Montana."

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Malik Willis: The 6-foot-1, 195-pound sophomore is Stidham's backup at quarterback, but he's also an impressive athlete. He passed for 2,562 yards and rushed for 1,033 as a senior at Roswell (Georgia) High in 2016, and in seven appearances last season, he completed 6 of 7 passes for 45 yards and a touchdown and rushed 16 times for 221 yards and another touchdown.

If the Tigers want to make sure Willis stays healthy as the No. 2 quarterback, they could also try Joey Gatewood, who is an imposing figure at 6-foot-5 and 237 pounds (Malzahn compared his physical traits to Cam Newton) and rushed for 1,100 yards as a senior at Bartram Trail (Florida) High last year.

"It's interesting because the guys that probably would be the main conductor of it are guys that have always played quarterback at some point in their career, whether that's Chandler Cox, whether that's Malik Willis, whether that's Whitlow," Horton said. "It was good for us last year, and we'll see how much we use it this year."

If Lindsey does use it — Malzahn said he wasn't sure how much his offensive coordinator planned to as of Wednesday -- the player quarterbacking it will have some big shoes to fill. 

This article is written by Josh Vitale from The Montgomery Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.