Spring Football Preview: Running Backs

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles previewing spring football practice.

Auburn, Ala.--When Auburn takes the field for spring training, it is doubtful if there will be any position with more quality candidates looking for playing time than at tailback.

Coach Eddie Gran has the luxury of working with Kenny Irons, who earned first team All-SEC honors last year, plus a group of talented backups and an exciting newcomer.

At fullback, the Tigers will be looking to replace graduating senior Jake Slaughter, who was a key part of the offense last season even though he seldom got the chance to run the football. Slaughter was one of the team's strongest blockers the past two seasons.

After sitting out the 2004 season as a transfer from South Carolina, Irons put together a memorable season. He led the SEC in rushing with 107.8 yards per game. In Auburn's last seven games, he averaged an impressive 139.1 yards per contest and 28.9 carries per game.

Irons finished with 1,293 rushing yards, which is the sixth highest single-season total in school history. Against teams ranked in the nation's Top 10 in rushing defense, he put up 218 yards vs. LSU and 103 vs. Alabama.

With Irons already a proven performer, he will likely be watching the other tailbacks run the football more than carry it himself this spring.

Tre Smith, who will be a senior this fall, and Brad Lester, who will be a redshirt sophomore, both were in the starting lineup last year before Irons moved up to number one on the depth chart.

"Tre will be a swing guy for us this season," says Gran, noting that Smith can line up at tailback, fullback and slot receiver.

Brad Lester runs for big yardage last fall.

The running backs coach says the key for Lester is to stay healthy after battling hamstring and groin injury problems that limited his playing time last season.

Lester averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. He saw action in eight games and ran the ball 52 times. He also caught three passes for 52 yards and one touchdown.

Smith ran the ball 56 times last season as a redshirt junior. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, the same as Irons, and scored two rushing touchdowns. Smith caught nine passes for 105 yards and one score.

Gran says he is expecting Carl Stewart to have his best season as a junior. Stewart carried the ball 42 times last season and averaged 3.6 yards per rush while scoring two times. He caught six passes for 60 yards.

Carl Stewart can play tailback and fullback for the Tigers.

"Carl is at 219 pounds, which is a good weight for him, and we are looking for him to step up and show us that he can handle the Ronnie Brown role (tailback, fullback receiver)," Gran says. "We have talked to him about what he needs to do to become a more consistent player and earn more playing time."

Tristan Davis, who split time at running back and defensive back, is scheduled to be a full-time safety this spring. However, the Tigers will have another tailback to work with during the 15 practice days that begin Feb. 28th.

Early high school graduate Ben Tate is taking part in the winter workouts. Gran says the 207-pounder has recovered from his ankle sprain that slowed him as a senior, although not enough to prevent Tate from becoming the leading rusher in Maryland high school history while leading his team to the state championship game.

"Ben is doing a great job in the classroom and in winter workouts," Gran says. "He looks to be on a mission to play this season. He is very serious about football and we are excited about seeing what he does in spring training."

At fullback Gran says that he is hopeful that Mike McLaughlin will step up and play with more consistency as a sophomore and stay healthy after being plagued with ankle problems last fall. "It's a great opportunity for him to show us what he can do," Gran says.

Andrew Turman was AU's number three fullback last year.

A pair of walk-ons will also get a serious look, Gran says. Andrew Turman, a 6-0, 230 junior, will get a look along with Stephen Gowland, a redshirt freshman from Lilburn, Ga., and Parkview High. Gowland was sidelined last fall, but has made a nice recovery from a knee injury. "We expect him to be ready for spring practice," Gran says.

The Tigers are scheduled to open practice on Feb. 28th. The annual A-Day spring game is set for March 18th.

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