Auburn Spring Preview: The Running Backs

The first in a series of Auburn spring football previews features the running backs.

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn running backs coach Eddie Gran says he is eager to get back on the football practice field and it won't be long for that to happen as the Tigers are scheduled to begin spring training on Feb. 27th.

One of the more watched positions will be Gran's tailback spot where the Tigers must replace two-year starter Kenny Irons, who is currently trying to impress pro scouts prior to the NFL Draft.

Eddie Gran coaches running backs and special teams.

Brad Lester, a 5-11, 191 junior-to-be with plenty of big game experience, will open spring drills at the top of the depth chart despite a one-game suspension for breaking a team rule that caused him to miss Auburn's Cotton Bowl victory over Nebraska.

"Brad has shown us what he can do and we are expecting him to play at a very high level this year," says Gran, who points out that he is pleased with Lester's workouts in the offseason.

A triple threat as a runner, receiver and returner, Lester finished the 2006 season with 104 carries for 510 yards and nine touchdowns. He averaged 14.5 yards on his six pass receptions and 28.3 yards on six kickoff returns.

The previous season, as a redshirt freshman, he rushed for 339 yards and five touchdowns while catching three passes 52 yards and one score. He also scored on a kickoff return and averaged 49.0 yards on four kickoff runbacks.

Brad Lester has shown a knack for scoring touchdowns since joining the Auburn football team.

In the past Gran has been concerned with Lester's struggles keeping his weight up 190-plus range. "He is doing fine in that area," Gran says. "It isn't a problem.

"We are expecting a lot out of Brad this season," Gran says. "He has played enough football that he is ready to step up be a major part of our offense. He has shown us what he can do."

Although the talented Irons is gone as well as veteran backup Tre Smith, there is still talent and depth at the position with a pair of exciting young players in the mix.

Ben Tate, who saw action last fall as a true freshman after graduating early from high school, contributed in eight regular season games plus the bowl.

The 2005 Gatorade Player of the Year in Maryland, Tate finished the regular season with 369 rushing yards and three touchdowns at 7.4 yards per carry. He added four carries for 23 yards vs. Nebraska in Auburn's 17-14 Cotton Bowl win.

Tate has shown the potential to make big plays on the corners of the defense while having enough strength to get the job done running for the tough inside yardage.

Mario Fannin, a player who watched the action from the sideline in Dallas like he did all season while redshirting, is eager to join the mix and Gran is just as excited to see what he can do.

"We have 15 practice days to teach him the fundamentals of playing tailback and see how he does," says Gran, who notes that the former high school quarterback is a talented young player who could also see action as a slot receiver.

Fannin won praise from head coach Tommy Tuberville for his performance on the scout team last fall. He imitated star running backs and quarterbacks and always gave the first team a good look, Tuberville notes.

Mario Fannin is expected to be one of the team's fastest players this season.

Fannin, who the Tigers signed out of Lovejoy, Ga., High, looks to be one of the team's best all-around athlete. He says that the redshirt season has helped make him a better player.

"I have gotten bigger, faster and smarter and I think I have adjusted to the college game," Fannin says. "I have gained about 15 pounds and weigh around 225 now."

Carl Stewart is shown after scoring on New Year's Day in AU's Cotton Bowl victory.

At fullback the Tigers are looking for help in August preseason practices from signee John Douglas, but the numbers will be thin there this spring with returning starter Carl Stewart being backed up by walk-on Danny Perry. Michael McLaughlin has not been cleared to play after having surgery and walk-on Stephen Gowland is giving up football due to injury issues, Gran says.

One of the projects in the spring for Gran will be teaching Tate the Ronnie Brown "F-back" role which Stewart handled well last year as a junior. Like Brown, Stewart became a threat in the passing game. He caught 12 passes for 230 yards and one TD in the regular season and caught a nine-yard TD pass in the bowl game. He also ran for Auburn's other touchdown vs. Nebraska and had two rushing touchdowns in the regular season as he netted 97 yards on 26 carries.

The Tigers are going through winter workouts directed by strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall.

After studying video of Auburn's 11-2 season, Gran says that one of the themes for the running backs this spring is to be sure they do a better job of following their blockers and hitting the proper holes while showing enough patience to let plays develop. Gran says the Tiger running backs left too many yards on the table last year by not showing enough patience in certain situations and that turned potential long gainers into short-yardage runs.

The Tigers will practice through March 17th when they close spring drills with their annual A-Day Game which will kick off at 1 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

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