Carolina On Kenny's Mind

All-SEC tailback Kenny Irons is returning to Columbia where he spent two seasons as a running back for South Carolina.

Columbia, S.C.--Kenny Irons will return to familiar turf on Thursday night as his Auburn football team looks to keep pace in the Southeastern Conference race as the Tigers take on the South Carolina Gamecocks.

There is no doubt that the 2005 All-SEC tailback wants to pound the Gamecocks into submission in a nationally televised contest, but he has given the home team no bulletin board material this week. When asked about the South Carolina football team Irons had nothing inflammatory to say about his two disappointing seasons in Columbia before he transferred to Auburn for the 2004 season.

Irons, the SEC's leading rusher last year and the current leader, spent his first two college seasons as a seldom-used backup for the Gamecocks. He is on record as saying that he was not treated fairly by the former coaching staff at South Carolina when Lou Holtz was head coach. However, as his 4-0 Tigers have prepared for the 6:47 p.m. CDT kickoff on Thursday night vs. the Gamecocks the tailback has been concentrating on getting back to full speed after missing AU's 38-7 victory over Buffalo last Saturday.

He says his mission this week is "just going out there and playing hard." He adds, "I am just thinking about getting back and getting healthy."

Slowed earlier in the season with a sore groin muscle, he has also been nursing a toe injury, but notes that he hopes to be back to full speed or close to it for the nationally televised showdown with the Gamecocks, a team the Tigers pounded 48-7 last year in Auburn.

"I met a lot of cool people at the university," he says of his two seasons in Columbia. "It is going to be nice going back there and just being around the field and just hanging out and shaking some of the guys' hands."

He admits he may have gotten too excited about last year's game. Even though he scored two touchdowns, he didn't put up his usual big numbers. Irons ran the ball 11 times for 27 yards and caught four passes for 40 yards.

For a nine-game stretch starting with a win over Ball State and ending with a win over Alabama last year, Irons rushed for more than 100 yards in every game except the one against the Gamecocks. "I am going to just play ball and relax and have a good time," he says.

Irons says he isn't sure if he will be booed or not at Williams-Brice Stadium, but does predict the Carolina fans will be into the game. "It is an awesome stadium because it is real loud," he says. "It is like playing at LSU in Baton Rouge. Their fans are dedicated and loud whether their team is doing bad or good it is going to sell out no matter what."

Kenny Irons is shown in action in Auburn's 34-0 victory at Mississippi State.

Irons knows South Carolina players like Ryan Brown and Bennett on defense as well as quarterbacks Syvelle Newton and Blake Mitchell. He notes that he still has friends at South Carolina, but says the decision to transfer to Auburn was obviously the right one. After sitting out in 2004 as required of a transfer, he took over the starting tailback duties early in the season and finished the 2005 season with an SEC-best 1,293 rushing yards.

Irons was recruited by Auburn out of Dacula, Ga., High School, but his older brother David, a standout cornerback for Auburn, helped convince Kenny that it would be better if the siblings went different directions for college. He considered Auburn, Michigan and several others before deciding on South Carolina.

Looking at the running back situation, he decided the opportunity looked promising in Columbia. "I figured if I redshirted I would have a great chance to be the starter the next year," he says. "When I got there, I didn't redshirt. I ended up playing to help out the team. I got the experience that I needed. I jumped right in there and played in a lot of games. I was thinking that I would come back and my sophomore year, like it is for a lot of players, would be my breakout year. I came back bigger, stronger and faster."

However, that year a high school All-American named Demetris Summers entered the tailback competition. "I busted my butt in practice to do everything I needed to do to win the starting job," says Irons, who notes that he was certain he would be the starter. "The night before the first game against Virginia, Coach (Lou) Holtz at a team meeting called my name and Daccus Turman, another running back, and told us he wanted to talk to us after the meeting.

"I figured it was going to be an inspirational speech about how big this game was, but that wasn't it. Lou was there with his son Skip by his side, like he always was to back up what his dad said, and he told us that Summers is going to take the first series. He said, ‘Kenny you will take the second series and then Daccus will go in.'

"I thought that was a bad rotation because as the starting running back you want to be in the first couple of series to get into a groove so you can get things rolling. They told us that they promised Summers when they were recruiting him he would start the first game if he went to South Carolina. He was the number one rated back (in the state) about 15 minutes away from South Carolina in Lexington and everybody wanted this guy."

Irons says he and teammates realized Summers was receiving preferential treatment, but tried to ignore it. He says one play in the opening game confirmed his fears. "An underthrown pass hit the tip of my hands while I was running," he says. "I wasn't going to blame the quarterback so I said it was my fault." However, much to his dismay, the sophomore was benched after that play.

"I think a player should get a chance to redeem himself," Irons says. "When I think about it I compare that play in the South Carolina game to a play in the (2005) Georgia game. Brandon (Cox) threw me a pass on a flat route and I dropped the ball. On the same play at South Carolina I got taken out of the game and stayed on the sidelines. At Auburn they said don't worry about it. I got in there the next play and I broke a 30 or 35-yard run for a touchdown."

Irons notes he is happy to play for Auburn. He is shown in the Tiger Walk prior to his team's victory over LSU this season.

Irons says he kept working in practice, but it didn't matter as he languished on the bench. "I think I did a great job by sticking in there and fighting through it, but I just got tired of it," he notes. "It was just crazy how things worked out. Slowly, I just faded into the background. I got depressed, I got sick and I realized I needed a fresh start. I got the opportunity at Auburn.

"When I first got here, I was so scared to mess up because of what happened to me at South Carolina. I had to get that out of my head, but I did because the coaches were real cool."

Going into the 2006 Auburn at South Carolina game, Irons has developed into the college star and a likely first round NFL draft pick. Summers struggled and is no longer playing for the Gamecocks and Holtz is out of coaching, working as a college football analyst for ESPN, the network that is televising the running back's return to Columbia.

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