2006 Football Preview: Running Backs

For four consecutive seasons the Auburn Tigers have had a player rush for more than 1,000 yards after last season's 1,293 yards by Kenny Irons. With Irons back along with several talented reserves, Coach Eddie Gran's crew will make a run at five this season.

Auburn, Ala.—-Last season it took Kenny Irons until the third game to get his first 100-yard game for the Auburn Tigers on the ground, but after that he never slowed down until the season was complete.

Putting together a string of six consecutive games over the century mark on his way to the sixth-best single season rushing total in Auburn history, Irons firmly established himself as Auburn's starter heading into the 2006 season.

At most schools Irons would be a shoo-in to get the bulk of the work and that's probably true at Auburn as well, but several talented backups give the Tigers the option of wearing down a defense on the ground. With 916 career rushing yards, senior Tre Smith is back and better than ever after a productive spring in which he showed flashes of the quickness that made him a standout earlier in his career.

Talented sophomore Brad Lester also returns after an injury-riddled season last year when he missed all or parts of at least six games. He still managed to rush for 339 yards and five touchdowns on just 52 carries and is Auburn's best home run threat.

Carl Stewart is also back and bigger after putting on nearly 10 pounds since spring practice. Now 225 pounds, Stewart should fill the part of the big back nicely along with true freshman Ben Tate.

Coach Eddie Gran says that the Tigers have all the pieces in place for another successful season on the ground and he's looking for big things out of the group.

We're solid there in terms of numbers," Gran says. "As you go into a season you always wonder if you've got enough ammunition back there and I think we do. Brad Lester has proven himself a little bit more this spring in that he was healthy for 15 practices. He's gotten bigger, he's gained 15 or 17 pounds since the bowl game. That's encouraging.

"You hope Kenny picks up right where he left off last year. He's gotten better. Then you've got some experience with Carl Stewart and Tre Smith and then you have Ben Tate pushing for playing time. We're in pretty good shape there."

Kenny Irons' 13 rushing touchdowns were the sixth-best single season total in AU history.

One position that isn't in good shape is at fullback where Jake Slaughter's departure leaves the Tigers void of any experience at the position. The leading candidate to replace Slaughter was sophomore Michael McLaughlin, but a knee injury in spring practice put him behind schedule and it is questionable how effective he will be at the start of the season. Gran says that a trio of walk-ons will get a long look at the position as well as several tailbacks in different formations.

Tre Smith is expecting see playing time at both tailback and F-back this season.

"I think right now with Mike McLaughlin going down you've had Andrew Turman come in and he did a decent job for us," Gran says. "You also have Danny Perry and Stephen Gowland. We've got Carl Stewart and Tre Smith and Brad Lester at that F position as well.

"We've got to be productive in different ways," he adds. "There's a good chance you'll see us more in the two-tailback system where we can use a guy like Carl Stewart or even Ben Tate as a guy like Ronnie Brown was used. They'll get touches that way and also block and do the things we need them to do. They'll be able to run screens and routes. We'll also have some one-back sets and spread people out. We'll see how that goes, but you've got to have a two-back plan to pound people and we'll have that by the end of two-a-days."

In addition to his dual role in the backfield Brad Lester could also return kickoffs for the Tigers.

For Smith the role is a natural because of his ability to both block and catch the ball out of the backfield. While he doesn't have the size of a traditional fullback, Smith makes up for that with his determination on the field. Gran says that having him back this season is going to be very helpful for the offense because of what he brings to the table.

"I was excited for him because Tre was checking his hole card and trying to figure things out," Gran says. "He didn't have a great junior year and had lost a lot of confidence. He's gotten that back and that was good to see. Tre is going to be in a situation for us where he'll play a lot of special teams and get the ball in different ways like he did this spring. I think you'll see a lot of production out of Tre this season."

Carl Stewart is stronger and more physical this fall and should be a bigger plus for the Tigers in the backfield.

While Tate got a lot of buzz in the spring because of his play, he's not the only true freshman runner for the Tigers in 2006. High school quarterback turned running back Mario Fannin will get a look during two-a-days for the Tigers and should be a player to keep an eye on. A lightning quick player who catches the ball well and cuts on a dime, Fannin's talent has caught the eye of teammates during summer workouts and Gran says he'll get a look to see if he can help the team.

"I'm excited to see Mario," Gran notes. "He's 210 pounds right now and he might be as quick or quicker than anybody we have. That's what we saw on film. He's got a lot of explosion and at 210 pounds that's going to be hard to tackle. It's going to be fun to see him this fall and see where he fits in. They're all going to be competing for a job and that's the only way you can make them better. That's how Carnell (Carnell Williams) and Ronnie (Ronnie Brown) got better. Carl Stewart has been getting better. They all want to be the guy and when it's that way you've got a chance."


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