Auburn, Ala.--Coming into the 2006 season Auburn had one of the deepest backfields in the country with Kenny Irons back following an All-SEC season as a junior along with Brad Lester, Tre Smith and Carl Stewart.
While things have been solid so far this season with Auburn second in the SEC in rushing yards per game, it hasn't been the dominating year on the ground that many thought it would be. Much of the reason for that have been injuries to Irons and Lester that have kept them less than full speed for much of the last month.
That was magnified last week when Irons sat out the victory over Tulane and Lester played just two series. In their absence true freshman Ben Tate rushed for 156 yards in the victory. Now a week later both Irons and Lester are back close to full speed. With the added punch provided by Tate coach Eddie Gran is looking for a strong finish from his group to close the season.
Lester has been very productive in his role this season as Auburn's number two back.
The first chance comes this week against an Ole Miss defense that has been torched this season on the ground. In eight games the Rebels have allowed 1,325 yards and 12 touchdowns to opponents. In comparison Auburn's much-maligned defense has given up 997 yards in eight games but has allowed just three scores.
The key to that may be Irons. Auburn's most prolific and proven back, Irons remains second in the SEC in rushing yards per game despite missing his second game of the year. Gran says that Irons looks good and he'll likely be back in his starting role this weekend.
"I think so," Gran says. "He felt really good throughout the weekend. He needed that though because he still wasn't full speed. He was close. Hopefully he'll be ready to go."
No matter how well Irons feels you'll definitely see Lester involved in the running game because of the way he's performing. On just 58 carries the sophomore has 305 yards (5.3 YPC) and six touchdowns on the ground. Gran says that Lester is running more decisively as a sophomore and it has made a difference in his production.
"I think he's just hitting it faster and more confident," Gran says. "He's seeing the hole. There would be a step before he hit it but he's hitting it now the way he should. That's what separates him. I think that's him learning the system and the offense. The good ones I don't teach a lot. I just let them go."
Ben Tate has come on strong this season and gives the Tigers another talented back to turn to.
Tate is another player that is quickly developing that mentality. After struggling in his first action of the season at Mississippi State, Tate has come on strong. For the year he has 271 yards and three touchdowns on just 37 carries with much of that damage coming last week. Gran says he sees a lot to like in the way the freshman is attacking the line of scrimmage.
"Ben did that yesterday," Gran says. "He hit it. He understands pressing the hole and where he needs to be. There is one way to run. They are going to do stuff that you can't teach like the jump cut and the special moves. That happens but we want our backs hitting the hole. You have to be able to do that here.
"We kind of groomed him as he's come along," he adds. "He stepped up and did a nice for us. I was just proud of the way he handled himself. He was very professional about it. He knew that he was going to get an opportunity. He didn't know it was going to be that many but I got Brad out of there because in this long stretch we're going to need them all. We're going to need Brad, Kenny, Ben, Tre and Carl. These next games are going to be physical. Any time we go up to Oxford that's the way they play on defense. It's going to be a grind. Then you have Arkansas State and then Amen Corner. We're going to need them all."