BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Time and again this summer, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have been blunt about Auburn’s receiving corps.
Both have expressed that one player has to separate himself to take on the responsibility of being the team’s “go-to” receiver. It takes on even greater importance knowing that Auburn’s top pass-catcher last season, Emory Blake, left a massive void in his wake. Blake’s 789 receiving yards represented 42 percent of the Tigers’ total 1,879 receiving yards last season.
So who will step up to take Blake’s place?
If C.J. Uzomah has his way, that lead receiver will be a tight end.
It’s an undertaking the junior said he’s already given “a lot” of thought.
“I think everybody would want to be that guy in a pressure situation to step up on third down, or if you need a last-second touchdown, then who are you going to throw it to?” he said Tuesday. “Everyone is working and battling to fill that position. I think this offseason everybody has been training their hardest to be that guy.”
Uzomah played in the shadow of starting tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen last year. That is, until Lutzenkirchen had season-ending hip surgery in October, which pushed Uzomah into the starting lineup. But it wasn’t smooth sailing for the Suwanee, Ga., native, who broke a bone in his right hand late in the season.
Expectations are far greater heading into 2013. Uzomah has already been named to the Mackey Award watch list, which goes to the nation’s top tight end. While he said it was “an honor to be mentioned” as a candidate for the award, Uzomah knows how little weight that carries when you actually step on the field.
“Personal accolades and individual accolades are rewarding,” he said, “but we’re hoping to make it to the (Georgia) Dome and the national championship. That’s what our sights are on.”
But even Uzomah had to admit it “would be a lie” if he said the newfound praise didn’t add to the pressure he already puts on himself to perform at the highest level.
“There is always going to be expectations for me to perform every week,” he said. “I feel like that pressure is going to be there for all of us now with this new staff saying ‘It’s A New Day.’ I think that pressure is going to be there no matter what. It’s up to us to step up to the plate and take it head-on.”
To better handle the additional responsibilities he’s taken on this season, the junior has honed in on the areas of his game that need improvement.
“I was trying to focus a little more on my blocking and putting my hand in the dirt just because that’s still been a huge emphasis on me personally,” he said. “Coach Lashlee and (tight ends) Coach (Scott) Fountain have talked to Brandon (Fulse) and I about how they want to utilize us in this offense. Splitting us out a little bit is one of the things we’re going to have to do, blocking the corner, blocking the safety, blocking the defensive end, blocking the linebacker. We’re going to be moving around a lot.”
That means Uzomah is constantly shuffling between the backfield, the slot and the outside receiver positions. If he didn’t put in time at all the spots, Uzomah joked he’d probably look “like a chicken with his head cut off.” While he has a lot on his plate, Uzomah can’t do everything.
That’s why he’s been pleased to see the eagerness of the incoming receivers.
“They are just as anxious to get out there as I have ever seen a freshman class, including our freshman class,” Uzomah said. “They have wanted to be in with the first, second, and third group no matter what. They are always asking to get in, asking for advice, asking for tips on how to shake a corner or something like that. They have been really sure-handed.”
None have impressed Uzomah more than Tony Stevens. The Florida native has “shocked” Uzomah with his performances during “captain’s practices.”
“He has grown up a lot because you’ve got to have that growing up stage from high school to college,” Uzomah said.
But when asked whether any of the freshman receivers — including Stevens — were ready to contribute immediately, Uzomah refrained from answering. Without the benefit of seeing them in pads, it’s too soon to tell. But in Uzomah and other veterans, the newcomers have a saving grace.
Never underestimate the power of knowledge and experience.
“Watching film and looking at a playbook is one thing,” Uzomah said, “but having people that have played in the offense and been in the offense that can help you fine-tune the little things, especially with someone as meticulous as Malzahn (or) Lashlee, I think that pays dividends.”