Heading into the 2006 season Gran again is looking for ways to get more running backs involved in the offense as a solid five-deep group of tailbacks not counting likely redshirt Mario Fannin has him scratching his head for ways to get them the ball in games this year.
There is no question that Kenny Irons is Auburn's starter after the season he had in 2005. Starting nine games the South Carolina transfer had 1,293 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground to cement himself atop the list heading into his senior season.
Throw in Brad Lester, Carl Stewart, Tre Smith and true freshman Ben Tate and you have a deep and talented backfield that Gran is currently evaluating to see how the difference pieces will be used this season.
"We've had a good look at it the last 15 or 16 practices," Gran says. "The picture is starting to come together. I would imagine by Friday we'll have a pretty good idea of who we're going to battle with come Saturday night the second (vs. Washington State)."
Behind Irons and Lester you the Tigers have players that will all take on the role that Brown played so well in 2004 when he saw time at both fullback and tailback and also caught 34 passes out of the backfield to stretch defenses horizontally. That was something missing last season as all the backs combined to catch just 37 passes, something that Gran believes Stewart will bring to the table again this season.
"He's a lot like the Ronnie Brown role," Gran says. "You find ways to get him the ball, not only running the football out of different formations but screen passes and the quick passing game with him out in the flat. The last two scrimmages with that he's been hard to bring down.
"He might be a short-yardage back, too. Kenny is a great short yardage back, too, because he knows how to put his foot in the hole and hit, but Carl just doesn't go down very often with the first tackle. We're finding ways to get him in the game because he's been very productive and the most consistent.
Stewart is being counted on to have his most productive season as a junior this fall..
"He's been the most consistent," Gran says. "There is no doubt. He's been the most consistent in terms of mental assignments, catching the football. they've all done that well. I guess when you put the whole package together he's been the most consistent."
Along with Stewart a player who should add an extra dimension at the position is Smith. Capable of blocking when he's needed, the senior has excellent hands and with his quickness back to form he'll be a tough matchup for defenses this season in the passing game.
"It's a little bit different because now you've got a guy like Tre Smith who can still do some of the blocking things that we asked Ronnie to do, but he'll be in there more in passing-type situations where we can get him matched up on some of the strong safeties or linebackers," Gran says. "We'll use both of those guys at the position especially."
One of Smith's strengths is catching the ball out of the backfield and creating mismatches.
That leaves Tate as the only other player who is expected to see action as both a tailback and fullback. Working at both since the spring, the freshman has improved his understanding of the offense and is now becoming more confident. Gran says because of that he'll see some action on offense and will be a performer for the Tigers on special teams.
"I think Ben is right where he's been right now," Gran says. "Him learning the F-position, I'm not going to say it set him back, but there's still some indecisiveness sometimes and he's still 17 years old. I would hate to put all of it on his shoulders. He's not ready to take the bull by the horns, but he's going to have a pretty good chance to play."
Eddie Gran makes a point to freshman Ben Tate.
When the Tigers use a traditional fullback the guy looks to be junior Andrew Turman with redshirt freshman Stephen Gowland and junior Danny Perry also in the mix for playing time. Gran says with so many guys to play such few spots the offense will begin to cut down the playbook as the season opener nears. "We're going to dwindle now," Gran says. "We're going to take the package and it's going to be more condensed now."
The running backs and their teammates will be back on the practice field on Tuesday after taking the day off on Monday as the Tigers continue preparations for their first-ever football game vs. Washington State.