2005 Spring Football Preview: Running Backs

Editor's Note: In the second of a series of previews of spring football practice, Coach Eddie Gran talks about losing his top two players out of the backfield and his plans for the spring.

Auburn, Ala.–-When the Auburn Tigers begin spring football practice on March 1, the familiar sights and sounds of running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown will be missing.

Fixtures together in the Auburn backfield for the last four years, the duo now heads for the NFL, leaving Coach Eddie Gran the tough task of finding replacements for a pair of backs who finished their careers in the Top 10 in Auburn history in rushing yards and touchdowns.

Ready to take over the reigns of the running game are four capable backs, led by junior Tre Smith and sophomore Carl Stewart. Both have experience in Auburn's offense and have done it in SEC games. Gran says that the intangible qualities are perhaps the toughest thing about replacing backs the caliber of Williams and Brown.

"The biggest thing is going to be just the experience and their knowledge of the game and what they brought to the table," Gran says. "You coached them, but they were coaches on the field with their leadership. That is probably going to be the hardest thing to replace, except that you have a guy like Tre Smith and Carl Stewart that both have some big-time experience. Tre has played in the biggest game of our careers, which is the Auburn-Alabama game. You know he can play in big-time games. He's played in LSU games, he's played in Georgia games.

"Carl Stewart has had touches and carries in both those games also. I just feel like we have to start with those two and let them be the guys to bring those other two (Kenny Irons and Brad Lester) up along with Mike McLaughlin."

Tre Smith has been productive when he has been on the field in his first three years at Auburn.

A junior who received a medical redshirt last season after injuring a shoulder early in the year, Smith is the most experienced of the returning players for the Tigers in the backfield. In his career he has rushed for 631 yards and nine touchdowns.

Smith's best game came as a true freshman against Alabama in Tuscaloosa when he rushed for 126 yards on 25 carries. He also rushed for 80 yards against LSU that season. Gran says that Smith appears ready to go this spring after getting his shoulder stronger throughout the fall and winter conditioning.

"He's rehabilitated very well," Gran says. "He's kind of like Carnell. They both have that tenacity to make sure they're healed. He's full speed, he's gained some weight (currently at 200 pounds) and he's faster. He's really excited about this opportunity."

While Smith is the most experienced, sophomore Stewart received valuable playing time in 2004. The 6-1, 217-pounder rushed for 184 yards last season with two touchdowns. He also added six catches for 99 yards out of the backfield. With Brown gone the Tigers will be searching for a player who can excel at both fullback and tailback. Gran says that everyone will learn both, but Stewart is the player who has the best opportunity to succeed in dual roles.

"I think all of them will learn both positions," Gran says. "They will all start out learning both and then we'll go from there. Even Mike McLaughlin will learn both. You want them to be able to interchange. I'm excited about seeing Carl. He's going to get bigger and faster. I think he's really maturing. He's a guy that when we give him the ball and more touches, I think he gets better as the day goes on."

Carl Stewart will be a redshirt sophomore this season for the Tigers.

Along with Smith and Stewart, both Irons and Lester will be called on to get the job done in the backfield this spring as they fight for time in the rotation. Jerald Watson, who saw spot duty last fall as a true freshman, has transferred to Southeast Louisiana to be closer to home and have a better shot at playing time.

A transfer from South Carolina, Irons sat out last season as a redshirt and gave fans at spring training, and his teammates throughout the year, glimpses of his talent. Now he's ready to take on the role of an every down player in the backfield.

"I think he's a guy that kind of the wildcard this year," Gran says. "Nobody really knows about him. I think what we saw in the spring was some explosiveness and toughness. I'm excited now about how he's going to react to, not only learning both positions that we have, this year fighting for a spot. Last year it was easy. He was just out there having fun. We still want him to have fun, but now there's going to be a little pressure on him."

Brad Lester was a star tailback at Parkview High in Lilburn, Ga., before redshirting as a freshman last season.

The speedy Lester is the last piece of the puzzle for Gran at running back. The 5-11, 190 Lester showed good instincts and running ability during two-a-days last fall, but an early injury put him on the shelf for the rest of the season. Redshirted, he returns as a freshman and is looking to show his skills this spring. Gran says Lester and all the backs should get used to catching passes even more than in the first year of the offense under coordinator Al Borges.

"I think you take guys like Brad Lester and all the guys and expand it," Gran says of the offense. "I think Al will do that as we get to this spring and mess with a couple of different formations. They all four catch the ball well. It's going to be exciting."

Kenny Irons is anxious to show what he can do.

Fullback is in solid hands with senior Jake Slaughter back after a very good junior year leading the way for Williams and Brown. The 237-pounder was strong at the point of attack as a lead blocker late in the season and should only get better after the experience he gained as a junior. McLaughlin as well as walk-on Andrew Turman provide depth for the Tigers.

"He was solid and consistent," Gran says of Slaughter. "That was the one thing about him. He really did a great job for us. We didn't miss a beat from Brandon Johnson.

"One thing we talked about at the end of the season is that we're going to work on his hands. We're going to work on him getting more flexible and turning his hips and catching the ball. We can use him. He can be a weapon catching the ball out of the backfield for us. There are ways to do that. He's going to work real hard in the spring getting those hands right.

"Mike McLaughlin, we'll see what he's all about. I think being on the scout team last year really helped him. Our defensive coaches have said that he's got some toughness about him. We'll see where he's going to fit for next year."

Fullback Jake Slaughter will be a senior for the Tigers.

With 15 practice days to get better this spring, Gran says that he has plans in mind for the running backs beginning with short yardage. While most people are looking for big plays out of running backs, Gran says that finding someone to get the tough yardage is his main goal beginning March 1.

"I want to create an atmosphere of toughness and great technique and just holding on to the football," Gran says. "I know they can catch the ball, but I want to make sure we continue that toughness part of it. You have to be a hard-nosed runner. The yards out in space are easy. I want to see the hard, tough-nosed yards. We're really going to concentrate on that. Also, we need to be good pass protectors. That's one thing we really try to do is protect our quarterback."


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