Tailback Competition Heats Up

The battle for playing time at running back is a hot one, but Kenny Irons is the hottest of the bunch right now according to coach Eddie Gran.

Auburn, Ala.--After grading his running backs' performance in game three, Eddie Gran is not changing his initial impression that Kenny Irons deserves to be the starting tailback.

Irons won high praise from Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville as well as Gran after rushing for 147 yards and two touchdowns on 11 first half carries vs. Ball State.

Auburn's tailbacks led the charge as the Tigers rushed for 390 yards vs. Ball State while improving their record to 2-1 on Saturday.

Irons, who began the season third string after less than impressive rushing and blocking performances in the preseason, looked like a different back in game three than he did in the first two contests as well as the preseason scrimmages. Gran says he really likes what he watched from Irons in Auburn's 63-3 victory vs. Ball State.

"I think you saw the home run ability. Even when we had Carnell (Williams) and Ronnie (Brown), how many times did you see a 70-yard run or something like that?"

Irons scored on runs of 13 and 68 yards vs. Ball State and graded 100 percent on his assignments. After Auburn's opening night loss to Georgia Tech, Gran challenged Irons to step up and get better in learning his assignments and he says that the tailback has now become a focused football player.

Gran says he told Irons that the junior's increased focus and intensity level has pushed him to the top of the tailback depth chart. "He has taken the starting position and is trying to keep it because a lot of people are after it," says the coach, who notes that he is now seeing a seven days a week commitment to excellence from Irons.

Gran also has praise for the other tailbacks. He says that redshirt sophomore Carl Stewart is his number one "F back," the hybrid tailback/fullback/wingback role that Brown played so well last year. He says he liked what he saw from the sophomore as well as from Tre Smith at that position in game three.

Kenny Irons runs the football vs. Ball State.

Gran is also upbeat about the potential for redshirt freshman Brad Lester, who is competing for the No. 2 tailback spot with Stewart and Smith. "I would say Brad Lester has a little bit more explosion than the other two," he says of the tailback who rushed for two TDs and returned a kickoff 93 yards for a TD vs. Ball State.

"Carl is more consistent and gives you something else in terms of a power runner," Gran adds. "It doesn't look like Carl is running all of the time, but all he does is get yards. I have had backs like that before and they are playing in the NFL now and they are all-pros. They are all different."

However, in one area on Saturday the tailbacks were all the same. Irons, Stewart, Smith and Lester each received perfect grades for knowing what to do in every situation. "Assignment-wise, they all had it all right," he notes. "We still have some little technique things to take care of, but I thought they ran harder. I think they stepped it up in terms of getting the pads down and getting the yards after contact."

Smith won praise for his running and blocking in game three. He put defenders on the ground with blocks and attacked the line of scrimmage with more energy. "I think if you watched Tre run the ball this week compared to last week, I think you saw a different Tre Smith. I think that is great. You are getting some competition there and it is just going to make them better. Like I told them, we feel like we can win with all of them so I think we are in a great situation."

Carl Stewart is averaging 5.1 yards per carry this season on 22 rushing attempts.

Commenting on Stewart, Gran says, "I believe he brings something we need. He has gotten faster with Yox (coach Kevin Yoxall). He is so consistent in everything we do. He is a good leader. He talks to those young guys."

Commenting on Lester, Gran says, "I think Brad is making the biggest push of anybody. Brad had a great summer camp until he got hurt (hamstring). He has got great quicks and he runs hard. He hits the hole. That is the one thing about this deal and this league. Those holes open and close real quick."

Gran says he isn't ready to name the number two guy and Auburn fans can expect to see four tailbacks in action this Saturday as Auburn plays Western Kentucky for homecoming. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

"It is a good group," the running backs coach says of his tailbacks. "All four of them get along very well. We are fortunate that way--nobody with egos. They are all very humble, which I think is a good team."

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