Sunday, July 12, 2009

Position overview: RBs; Home and Away bonus

Gus Malzahn wants you to make no mistake about it: He might run a spread offense variation, but Auburn is a power running team.

That means there will be a lot of Ben Tate. It also means there will be enough other carries for a lesser known back to have a breakout season. With Mario Fannin apparently set primarily in the H-back position, newer names will have chances to hear their numbers called.


Ben Tate, Sr.
Eric Smith, So.
Onterio McCalebb, Fr.
Dontae Aycock, Fr.
Justin Albert, RFr.
Mario Fannin, Jr.


Coaches have preached the message that no job has been earned since they arrived on campus. Forget that. Tate has certainly already earned his position as the starting tailback. Barring injury, he will be the workhorse in the Auburn backfield. Tate thinks the new offense is much more running back-friendly because of where the back lines up. The extra yard in lining up behind the quarterback instead of next to him, Tate said, makes a remarkable difference.

The man who backs up Tate, on the other hand, truly is a wide-open race. Running backs coach Curtis Luper said Eric Smith had earned the spot during spring practice before he suffered a bone bruise on his knee. Luper said the training staff originally feared Smith had torn a ligament. Fortunately for the Tigers, Smith hadn’t. He will be ready for two-a-days. Smith is more of a power back.

Onterio McCalebb will create the most buzz amongst Auburn tailbacks. Rightfully so. He proved a few times this spring that he could be the home-run threat the Tigers have desperately needed for the past few years. Of course, he can’t make plays from the sidelines. We’ll see how the coaching staff utilizes McCalebb. Another true freshman, Dontae Aycock, could be used in the same way as McCalebb, though Aycock has more work to do. Aycock didn’t get the benefit of spring practice. Look for both players to see a decent percentage of snaps from the slot receiver spots.

EDIT: Though I've heard from more than one coach that McCalebb and Aycock could be used in different ways, WR Terrell Zachery said the duo have not spent time at the slot receiver spot during the summer. More on the receivers coming soon.

Most scoff when hearing or reading that walk-ons might see some playing time. Don’t be so quick to dismiss the idea Justin Albert could contribute. He’s in the mix to be Auburn’s full-time punt returner and he impressed Luper during spring practice. Albert could see playing time and might even work his way up the depth chart.


Luper on his expectations for Tate: “When you have smart players it means you can do a lot of different things with them. We’re going to do a lot of different things with him. He’s strong, he’s faster than people think and he’ll fall forward and gain yardage.
“He’s a 1,000-yard back waiting to happen. No question.”

I told you Luper came away with favorable impressions of Smith. Here’s his quote: “He was a pleasant surprise – a tough runner who doesn’t go down easily. He’s not very concerned with getting tackled either. He’s up and has balance, good feet, and he’s a load. He’s got a little Bus in him.”

Luper didn’t commit to a number of snaps or touches McCalebb would get, but he said there would be a conscious effort to utilize him – probably not all at tailback: “You have to use him and really utilize him because he’s one of the fastest guys on our team. We’ll have to find ways to get him the ball.”

Tate on his “disappointing” 2008 season: “I definitely think about it. I can remember I averaged 4.2 yards a carry. That’s just not going to cut it. It’s four yards. Yeah, you’ll take it, but for me that’s just not going to cut it. I think a couple games I had like 30 yards. That’s just not going to get it. It’s just things like that that while I’m working out and while I’m running, when it gets tough that’s what I think about.
“I also think about it’s your last senior year. It’s your last go-around. It’s your last chance to perform, last chance to be a starter in an Auburn uniform. Those things right there just make you work that much harder.”

Tate on his 2009 goals: “A successful senior year for me would probably be averaging five yards a carry, around like 14 touchdowns and over 1,200 yards rushing. That would be a very nice, successful senior year and I think that would just silence all the critics that I do have.”

Tate lining up behind the quarterback instead of next to the quarterback: “It makes a big difference because, if you think about it, if you’re directly beside that quarterback and say you’re running an inside zone to the right, everything is laterally and across. First of all, I’ve got to get over there before I can even get my shoulders squared if I even have time to get my shoulders squared. Those types of plays, it takes longer to develop. When you’re in the SEC and you’ve got Tyson Jackson and guys like that, the linemen can only hold their blocks for only a second or two.
“You don’t have time to run and then if your shoulders are parallel to the line, it’s hard to make that cut. Or maybe a lineman just mauled a guy back there but you can’t see it. You can’t see that cutback lane. With coach Malzahn, we’re like a yard or two behind the quarterback so now most of our runs are straight downhill. I guess it’s more of a split-zone because I’m attacking the center most of the time. It’s always going to be I can cut to the right or I can cut to the left.
“You can make your decisions a lot faster. There’s not a lot of indecisiveness going on with your running. In coach Malzahn’s offense, I have to constantly keep working on my path because I was always the guy that I wanted to get to the line quick, but I was also taking the wrong steps. Toward the end of the spring I started getting the steps down and I started seeing more holes than I was seeing before and in the scrimmages I started breaking off runs a lot more. That’s where it started coming to me and I started to understand it. That’s when all the trash-talking started coming because I started feeling comfortable.”

Strictly out of curiosity, I took a look at how SEC teams have fared both at home and on the road since 2000 in SEC games.

There were a few surprises. Four teams, all in the East, actually have better road records than home records.

The Swamp turned out to be the toughest venue to win at. Georgia has been the best road team. Auburn has the fourth-best home record and tied for fourth with LSU in its road record.

As for the worst teams, Vanderbilt has the worst home record, winning only every sixth home game. Mississippi State has won just four road games since 2000. Auburn managed to lose to the Commodores at Vandy last year and the Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare in 2007.

Keep in mind, Florida and Georgia always play their annual game at Jacksonville. Since that's a neutral site affair, I did not factor it into these marks. For the record, Florida is 7-2 in those games over the last nine seasons. That the game is at a neutral site certainly helped Georgia's road record.

Here's a look at the best home-field advantages:
1. Florida (26-6)
2. LSU (27-9)
3. Georgia (23-8)
4. Auburn (26-10)
5. Tennessee (23-13)
6. Alabama (21-15)
7. Arkansas (20-16)
8. Ole Miss (17-19)
9. South Carolina (15-21)
10. Mississippi State (13-23)
11. Kentucky (9-27)
12. Vanderbilt (6-30)

Best road teams:
1. Georgia (26-6)
2. Florida (21-10)
3. Tennessee (24-12)
T4. Auburn (23-13)
T4. LSU (23-13)
6. South Carolina (18-18)
7. Alabama (17-19)
8. Arkansas (16-20)
9. Ole Miss (12-24)
10. Kentucky (8-28)
11. Vanderbilt (7-29)
12. Mississippi State (4-32)

Biggest differentials:
1. MSU (home) 9 games
2. Ole Miss (home) 5 games
3. Florida (home) 4.5 games
T4. Alabama (home) 4 games
T4. Arkansas (home) 4 games
T4. LSU (home) 4 games
T7. Auburn (home) 3 games
T7. South Carolina (road) 3 games
9. Georgia (road) 2.5 games
T10. Kentucky (home) 1 game
T10. Tennessee (road) 1 game
T10. Vanderbilt (road) 1 game

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