The first step to rebuilding Auburn's running game was signing the talent to run the ball. It would start up front on the offensive line followed by talent in the backfield to finish the play. Coach Hugh Nall has established himself as one of the best line coaches in the Southeastern Conference, if not the best.
Eddie Gran came to Auburn from Ole Miss along with Tommy Tuberville for the 1999 season and has been at AU since then.
Coach Eddie Gran has done wonders with a fleet of talented running backs, preparing them for the speed and brutality of playing in the SEC. Despite the three changes at offensive coordinator over the past four seasons, Auburn has possessed one of the best running attacks in the SEC since 2000.
When Kenny Irons rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2005, it marked the first time in school history that Auburn had four consecutive one thousand yard rushers (from 2002 through 2005). It also marked the first time in school history that Auburn had a leading rusher with at least 600 yards for six consecutive seasons.
In terms of individual success, Auburn's leading rusher under Tuberville has averaged 1,044 yards per season. Coach Doug Barfield's leading rusher was second with an average of 1,029 yards per season followed by Pat Dye's 872 yards per season. Terry Bowden's leading rusher averaged 789 yards per year. Take away James Bostic and Stephen Davis, who were recruited by Dye, and Bowden's rushing game is left with very little to discuss. In fact, Bowden never recruited a single running back who rushed for at least 500 yards in one season.
From 1994-1999 (a six-year period ), Auburn posted only 14 individual 100-yard rushing performances. From 2000-2005, Auburn has racked up 47 100-yard rushing performances. Over the past six seasons, Auburn has fielded a 100-yard rusher 62 percent of the time, which is a huge improvement over the 20 percent in the six years prior to 2000.
Over the last six years, as a team Auburn has averaged 178 yards per game on the ground, which is a major improvement over the 130 yards from 1994 through 1999. Auburn was held to under 100 yards rushing as a team 31 times in 69 games from 1994-1999. Over the last 76 games, Auburn has been held to under 100 yards rushing just 12 times.
How important is Auburn's improvement in the running game? Auburn is 42-6, when rushing for at least 150 yards over the past six years.
Since 2002, only Arkansas (10,657) and Alabama (9,848) have rushed for more yards than Auburn (9,749) among SEC teams. Over the past four seasons, only Arkansas (4.81) has averaged more yards per carry than Auburn (4.56).
No other SEC team scores a rushing touchdown as frequently as Auburn, one every 17.9 rush attempts. Only Arkansas ( 217.5) and Alabama (196.9) have averaged more yards rushing per game than Auburn (191.2).
Auburn is second in 200-yard rushing games with 29 over the past six years. Arkansas leads the league with 34 and Alabama is third with 26. LSU is the only other Southeastern Conference team with at least 20 200-yard rushing games over the last six seasons.
To be a successful Division IA college football team, you have to recruit the talent, but just as importantly, you have to coach them when they arrive. Under Hugh Nall, five Auburn offensive linemen have made All-SEC. Four different Auburn running backs have made the All Southeastern Conference team under Coach Eddie Gran. The combination of a quality line coach and running back coach has resulted in one of the most prolific running periods in school history.
Much like Coach Steve Spurrier's ability to field a consistent passing attack no matter who the starter is at quarterback, Auburn under Tuberville has accomplished the same with its running game and tailbacks. Certainly talent is a contributing factor in the success of Auburn's running game, but it's only part of the equation. This was evident by the fact that Gran did not start Kenny Irons for the 2005 season opener against Georgia Tech despite his obvious talent at running the ball. It's not just about running the ball, but knowing blocking assignments in the passing game along with the role in the offensive game plan.
The Auburn coaching staff has implemented a system for success in terms of the running game. Other running backs have experienced their moment of stardom, even though they were not starters. Casinious Moore had 160 yards rushing against Mississippi State during the 2001 season. Tre Smith rose to the occasion against Alabama in 2002 with 126 yards rushing. Brandon Jacobs had 182 yards rushing against Mississippi State in 2003 and Tristan Davis rushed for 162 yards against Kentucky this past season. Spurrier demanded perfection from his quarterbacks and Gran expects his running backs to know their roles in offense and to be prepared when their number is called on.
Rudi Johnson has developed into one of the star running backs in the NFL with the Cincinnati Bengals.
A common denominator in the Auburn running game is the work ethic of the coaches and running backs. Players like Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Kenny Irons combined talent along with hard work to become stars on the field. It's the kind of hard work the Auburn coaching staff demands of their players and themselves.
Just imagine the influence Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown had on Kenny Irons and Brad Lester during the 2004 season. Somewhere down the road, Irons and Lester will do the same for players like new Tiger freshman Benjamin Tate. Auburn coaches and fans hope it will become a torch that will be passed on for a very long time. There is no perfect formula for success in football, but Auburn has built a model as close to any.