One thing that won't change is Auburn's dependency on the running game. That's because the Tigers return one of the top running back tandems in the country in sophomore Michael Dyer and junior Onterio McCalebb. Combining for 1,956 yards and 14 touchdowns last season on 277 carries, the tandem will probably take an even bigger role this time around, according to position Coach Curtis Luper.
"They had a great spring with a lot of retention from the fall," Luper said. "It will be exciting to see them carry the ball more this year. They are proven commodities at running back. We know they can carry the ball and gain yardage. What I needed from them this past spring was leadership because we lost a lot of seniors. I saw them begin to emerge as leaders."
Breaking Bo Jackson's freshman rushing record with 1,093 yards on the ground in 2010, Dyer is back and although he's missed time with an injury in the preseason Luper said he's looking for more on and off the field from the sophomore.
"He had a great offseason," Luper said. "He's around 215. That's right where I want him to be. I think he's more of a vocal leader this year and we'll need him to be more of a leader. The expectations are high for him. He rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman."
In McCalebb the Tigers have the perfect complement to the bruising running of Dyer in Gus Malzahn's offense. Capable of taking it the distance on any play, the junior had 810 yards and scored nine touchdowns while averaging an astounding 8.5 yards per carry. For his career McCalebb has 1,375 yards and 13 touchdowns at 6.9 yards per attempt.
Behind them is where the questions lie for the Tigers as only Anthony Morgan and walk-on Davis Hooper, who officially goes on scholarship this week as a senior, have any experience among the returning players. Having played defensive back and wide receiver in his career, Morgan's lone extended playing time came in 2009 against Furman when he had 77 yards on just five carries.
A candidate to be the backup tailback when the Tigers open the season, Luper said that Morgan's history of playing different positions could work in his favor this fall.
"He's just another speed guy for us that will give us some flexibility in the offense," Luper said. "He'll play some wideout and some in the backfield and maybe some wildcat. He's very versatile for us. He can do a lot of things. It will kind of play itself out as the season goes."
Getting cleared very late in the summer, speedy Tre Mason will be counted on to provide some depth this fall as well after a strong preseason to this point. He has shown the ability to make big plays in the running game and with his speed he could be a home run hitter in Malzahn's offense.
Luper said the former cornerback has gotten a lot of work in preseason drills and has made plenty of progress.
With Florida transfer Mike Blakely still hoping to receive good news after appealing the NCAA's decision that he must sit out the 2011 campaign, something that is a longshot, Mason is the only other tailback for Auburn this fall and Luper said they're looking to get him ready as soon as possible.
"He's a track guy and he ran a lot over the summer so he's in good shape," Luper said of Mason. "They have the captain's practices where they practice on their own during the summer and he missed those, so he's a little behind. Running back is one of the easiest positions to play mentally. Physically is one of the toughest to play. He'll catch up."
Mason scored four touchdowns in the Auburn's first two scrimmages.
"He scored on the first play when I went to watch him play last fall," Luper said. "I was impressed then. We knew he is fast and he is fast--Onterio McCalebb fast. Onterio might dispute that, but he is.
"You never know how tough they are until you get them out on the field," Luper said. "He is as tough as nails. He is resilient and bounces back every day because he has gotten a lot of reps--a lot of live reps. He is going to help us."
At the fullback position Auburn must replace Eric Smith after he was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules. Expect wide receiver/tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen to see some action at the position this fall with senior walk-on Chris Humphries and massive redshirt freshman Ladarious Phillips also in the mix.
Ladarious Phillips runs the football in practice.
"Lutz played a lot last year and we have a lot of candidates," Luper said. "We just have to find someone to back him up and solidify that. It will be one of the things we're focusing on this fall."
The running backs coach said that 293-pound Phillips is "still a work in progress" after missing almost all of the 2010 season following a foot injury in the final preseason scrimmage. "The injury he had is one that takes a guy who is 300 pounds about 12 months to heal fully so he is just now getting to a point where I would say he is 100 percent," Luper said.
"Hopefully, he can contribute," the running backs coach added. "A kid with that size and athleticism, we need to find a place for him to help this football team."