Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Running backs

What do you know? Here comes good news for Auburn's offense.

The tailback position was already solid, even with the departure of Brad Lester, and seems to be growing stronger in recruiting.

Quick sidebar on Lester: There might be an NFL team that takes a flyer on him. After all, he showed superstar potential during his sophomore season when he was Mr. Touchdown. Spelling Kenny Irons, Lester was spectacular. He was the home run hitter Auburn needed. That seemingly only set up two major disappointments of seasons.

Lester, who is one of the nicest and happiest people you could ever meet, was suspended for his the start of his junior season and was often injured during his senior season. A two-play sequence against Alabama will serve as my -- and probably several others' -- lasting memory of Lester. On one play, he took a nice gain and then sprinted to the sideline instead of trying to pick up the first down and extra yardage. It was an obvious attempt to avoid contact. On the next play, he lost a fumble that Alabama turned into a touchdown and the rout was on.

Maybe it's not fair, but it's true.

One good thing came out of Lester's disappointing senior season. When he needed replaced in the starting lineup, Auburn found a potential star in Mario Fannin. He showed his potential during Auburn's near-miss against Georgia, rushing for 59 yards on only eight attempts and also turning in a 52-yard reception. He accounted for both of the Tigers' touchdowns.

That's what coaches had been waiting to see from Fannin. Then again, the end of the Georgia game was a microcosm for the insanity of it all. Here was Fannin, having the best game of his career, and he's nowhere to be found during the final drive. Coaches gave an excuse that Ben Tate (who had gained 37 yards on 14 carries) was a better blocker. I don't make a habit of watching tailbacks block, but it seems very likely. However, why take your biggest offensive threat out of the game in the final minutes? It just doesn't make sense. That brings us to Fannin's career as a whole: For whatever reason, the coaches didn't trust him.

They had some reasons. There was the two-fumble game against South Florida in 2007 and the third-down play against West Virginia last year where he ran the wrong direction -- and directly into Kodi Burns -- forcing a loss on the play. Don't forget about the idea of moving him to receiver that failed miserably. (Auburn fans can rightly pin that one on Tony Franklin).

The new staff does have a historical tie with Tate (Curtis Luper recruited him while at Oklahoma State), but Fannin seems to be the most explosive player on Auburn's offense.

That's where Gus Malzahn comes in. His offense is predicated on establishing the run and setting up the downfield pass -- excellent news for Auburn's stable of running backs. It should also give ample opportunities for Fannin and Tate to shine in their own ways.

Tate is a more physical back, though Fannin doesn't shy away from contact either. He doesn't have the breakaway speed or the moves that Fannin possesses, but Tate owns a strong overall skill set. He can do all the little things -- catch passes, pick up blitzes, gain key yards. Malzahn's offense has also shown that power backs can flourish, which is especially good news for Tate.

Eric Smith earned the nickname "Little Rudi," referencing former Auburn back Rudi Johnson, early last year. He showed promise in limited action, but did show a propensity to fumble. Smith is a bigger back than Tate, but needs to be just as physical to succeed. How quickly his other skills -- blocking, pass-catching, etc. -- come along could determine his role on the 2009 team.

Beyond Fannin, Tate and Smith, Auburn will rely on newcomers for both depth and contributions. Onterio McCalebb, who played last year at Hargrave Military Academy, could be game-ready immediately. The question is whether or not he possesses SEC breakaway speed. That should be answered during spring practice since McCalebb (6-0, 175 pounds) is already enrolled in school.

As of now, the Tigers have another tailback commit -- Brandon Jacobs (not that one). However, that could be in jeopardy now that Eddie Gran has accepted a job at Tennessee. Gran has contacted Jacobs and might pursue him for the Volunteers. There's nothing "dirty" about what Gran is doing and Auburn, especially, can't complain since its coaches are targeting players they recruited while at their former posts.

If Jacobs goes to Auburn, it would give the Tigers another big, physical back. He is listed at 6-1, 230 pounds.

Far-too-early projections: Fannin starts and splits reps with Tate.

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