Auburn, Ala.--While many positions have question marks surrounding them heading into spring football practice, the tailback position looks rock solid and there is promise at fullback even though the returning starter is sidelined until August.
The only bad news on the running back front is that junior Brandon Johnson will miss spring drills while doing rehab from shoulder surgery. Other than Johnson, all of the running backs from the 2001 team look to be healthy and ready for action this spring.
Brandon Johnson, a 6-0, 233 junior, will miss spring practice.
Although many changes are in store for the offensive unit under new coordinator Bobby Petrino, position coach Eddie Gran says that he's looking forward to seeing what his troops can accomplish beginning March 1.
"I think the biggest thing going into this spring and what we get out of it is learning the terminology in this new offense," Gran says. "Everybody needs to be on the same page. That's what we want to get out of those 15 days of practice.
"Everybody is coming in healthy at tailback," Gran adds. "Carnell's shoulder is 100 percent. It's going to be a battle to see how everybody else is going to compete. Not only Carnell to keep his job, but Ronnie and Casinious and Chris being in there and battling. Somebody needs to separate themselves and we're looking for that here in the next two months."
Carnell Williams is expected to be one of the top players in the SEC this fall.
Although things are officially up for grabs, there is no disputing the fact that Carnell Williams firmly established himself as the number one guy before a shoulder injury suffered during the Alabama game put a close to his season.
Rushing for a team-high 614 yards on just 120 carries last season with six touchdowns, Williams proved the doubters wrong that said he was too small to make a big impact as a freshman. Up to 199 pounds on his 5-11 frame since the injury, the bigger and stronger Williams is primed to go full speed in spring practice and should set the tone for the entire spring with his work in both the single-back and two-back offensive sets.
Casinious Moore had a bigger role in the offense last season after recovering from a knee problem that took two years to overcome.
Backing Williams will be a trio of solid performers in Ronnie Brown, Casinious Moore and Chris Butler. Each had their moments during the 2001 season, most notably Moore's 160-yard effort against Mississippi State, but because of injuries and fumble woes all were considered question marks at one time or another during the 7-5 campaign. Now healthy once again, all should challenge Williams for the starting job, but Gran says that the short time the team has to practice this spring will be plenty to sort out the perceived logjam at tailback.
"They'll get their reps I'm not worried about that," Gran notes. "They'll separate themselves in practice. They're going to have drills and have to show toughness. Their knowledge, knowing the schemes, everything. There's a lot to it. Catching the football. This offense is going to allow them to do that so we're going to find out who's going to be able to get it done."
Moore, a junior, will go in to spring practice at 6-0, 222, Brown, a sophomore, is 6-1, 222 and Butler, a junior, is 5-11, 212 pounds.
Carnell Williams won All-SEC Freshman honors last season.
Happy with the progress and numbers at the running back position, the same can't be said for the fullback spot where starter Johnson will miss all of spring drills after having surgery to repair a shoulder injury. That leaves the burden of the work to little-used Michael Owens and Victor Horn. While each may have the talent to excel in the offensive sets of Petrino because of their speed and pass-catching ability, it remains to be seen if they can handle the play-to-play toughness needed to play the position.
Victor Horn spent the 2001 season on the scout team, but will get a look at both fullback and tailback this spring.
Owens is a 6-0, 228 pound senior. Horn is a 6-0, 226-pound sophomore who practiced in the secondary, at linebacker and at wide receiver last season before moving to the scout team as a running back.
"At fullback we won't have Brandon, he's going to be having surgery," Gran says. "We're going to be getting that taken care of so we'll have Mike Owens and Victor Horn is going to play a little bit of fullback. We'll see if we can get one of those two guys involved. There also might be a personnel (grouping) there where we might have two tailbacks in the game. We do have that personnel set as well. We'll be able to utilize all the guys and that's what this game is about, putting your best players on the field."
Head coach Tommy Tuberville says Horn is also expected to get a look at tailback and tailback Brown will spend some time at fullback this spring.
Brandon Johnson is shown talking to linebacker coach Joe Whitt at practice last season. Johnson will be a full-time fullback this season with more depth at the linebacker positions.
Expected to carry the load for the offense in the 2002 season, the running game will receive major attention this spring. Using some of the same sets and formations that were successful in 2001, Gran says that the offense will look similar to the naked eye, but there are many things that the players will have to pick up in a short period of time to enable the offense to be running on all cylinders when two-a-days begin in August.
Eddie Gran talks to Chris Butler at the LSU game in Baton Rouge.
"There won't be necessarily more two-back stuff," Gran says. "There are some similarities in terms of formations and protections called and run games, it's just different terminology. But then, there is a lot of stuff that is different and that's what they'll have to get good at."
Ronnie Brown can play both tailback and fullback for the Tigers.
* * *