With the departure of running back Kenny Irons, the Auburn Tigers will be searching for their next great running back to lead the Auburn rushing attack. Over the past seven seasons, Auburn's leading rusher has averaged 1121 yards per season, which included five 1000-yard rushers. If not for injures to Carnell Williams in 2001 and Kenny Irons in 2005, it could have been seven consecutive 1000-yard rushers.
During the past seven years the Auburn Tigers have been fortunate enough to have the likes of Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Kenny Irons to carry the work load at running back. Brad Lester is the only returning running back with extensive game experience against a quality opponent. Though the Tigers may lack experience, they has the luxury of selecting their next starter from a talented pool of players.
Williams, shown in his final game as a Tiger in the Sugar Bowl against Virginia Tech, was the fifth selection in the 2005 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He topped 1,000 yards rushing in 2003 and 2004 at Auburn.
Coming out of spring practice Lester, Benjamin Tate, Mario Fannin and Tristan Davis look to be contenders. With two years of extensive action, Lester is the odds on favorite to be the starter but there is plenty of talent competing behind him. Lester has compiled 849 yards and 14 touchdowns over the past two years with an average of 5.4 yards per carry.
Tate was called upon as a true freshman last season, racking up 369 yards on only 50 carries. Though he mainly saw action against inferior opponents, his debut season as an Auburn Tiger remained impressive. Davis saw limited action in 2005, carrying the ball only eleven times but cashed it in for 209 yards and two touchdowns.
In just the last two seasons Lester, Tate and Davis combined for 1427 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns on the ground. The trio amassed these totals on just 217 carries. Once again, the majority of these totals came against weaker opponents but when compared to other Auburn "greats", the totals were indeed impressive.
Here are the career averages of other legendary Auburn running backs against Division IA opponents with a win percentage under .400 or Division I-AA opponents.
|Lester, Tate, Davis||6.58||12.06||5.0|
Comparing the above listed backs based on average per carry and average number of carries per touchdown, the trio of Lester, Tate and Davis would rank fourth on the list behind Fullwood, Jackson and Williams. The combination of Lester, Tate and Davis were ranked sixth in average per carry and fourth in touchdown per carry ratio. This clearly shows the potential Auburn possesses at the running back position, which doesn't include Fannin, a redshirt freshman who rushed for 200 yards on 13 carries in the final scrimmage of the spring.
Lester has already established his big play potential with six plays of 30 yards or more on only 165 offensive touches of the ball. During his brief career at Auburn, Lester has averaged 5.23 yards per carry against opponents with a winning record and 4.64 yards per carry when he has carried the ball at least 10 times in one ball game. His best performance to date is against the Florida Gators in 2006, when Lester rushed for a career-high 94 yards on 17 carries.
Lester, shown scoring a touchdown in Auburn's fifth consecutive victory over Alabama, has the speed and quickness to be the next Tiger 1,000-yard rusher.
Tate and Davis have three plays of 30 yards or more each, proving they also have big-play ability. Though their career numbers have come against lesser opponents, their combined averages would have been third on the list provided above. Against the same caliber of opponents only Jackson and Fullwood posted better averages than Tate and Davis combined.
Plan of Attack...
If recent history is any indication of the coaches' intent on how they will deploy their running backs, Coach Eddie Gran would like to find a primary back to carry the bulk of the carries. In a best case scenario, if two backs rise to the occasion, it might benefit the team to have a two-headed monster similar to Williams and Brown in 2004, though converted fullback Carl Stewart could be in that mix. Should Lester further separate himself from the other backs before the season starts, will he be able to take the pounding of carrying the ball twenty times per game?
From 1967-1980 Auburn's leading rusher each season accounted for 32.1 percent of the rushing yardage and 27.8 percent of the total number of rush attempts. From 1981-1992, Pat Dye's leading rusher accounted for 36.9 percent of the rushing yardage and 28.5 percent of the total number of rush attempts. When Dye shifted to an I-formation in 1985, the leading rusher accounted for 42.5 percent of the rushing yardage and 33.4 percent of the carries from 1985-1992.
Under Terry Bowden Auburn's leading rusher accounted for 45.7 percent of the rushing yardage and 35.5 percent of the total number of rush attempts. Coach Tommy Tuberville's starting running back has been more involved in the running game, accounting for 51.3 percent of the total rushing yardage and 44.3 percent of the carries. Three running backs under Tuberville have made the top-five list of the highest percentage of rush attempts dating back to 1967. Johnson was No. 1 with 70.1 percent of the team's rush attempts in 2000. Kenny Irons was second with 53.2 percent in 2005 and Carnell Williams was fifth with 44.5 percent in 2003.
The talent is clearly in place for Auburn to have a very good running game in 2007. The key will be the offensive line and how long it takes for them to gel into a consistent unit, though they took strides in doing that this spring. With the talent and speed Auburn will possess at the running back position, the Tigers should be able to make a young offensive line look better. If the offensive line performs better than 2006, the running game could be lethal. Last season Kenny Irons battled too many injuries to play at full strength, which severely limited his big-play ability.
The Auburn running game is vital for its success on the field. Over the past seven years Auburn is 46-6 when rushing for at least 150 yards and is just 4-11 when held to under 100 yards rushing. During the 2006 season Auburn averaged only 99.2 yards rushing against opponents with a winning record. This was a huge drop from the 178.9 average in 2002, the 152.0 average in 2004 and the 144.7 average in 2005.
Williams was on pace for 1,000 yards as a sophomore in 2002 before suffering a broken leg midway through the season. Instead, Brown stepped in and topped the 1,000-yard barrier that year and he came close as a senior with 913 yards.
During the same time span, Auburn averaged 26 points and 395 yards per game against opponents with a winning record when rushing for at least 150 yards. The scoring production dropped to just 12 points and 261 yards per game when held to under 120 yards rushing. Though Auburn has strived for balance on offense, the passing game has always been built around the success of the running game.
Auburn's current coaching staff has a proven track record of recruiting and developing good running backs. Within the SEC over the past six seasons, only Arkansas has averaged more rushing yards per game than Auburn and only LSU has averaged more yards per carry. Coach Gran demands near perfection from his running backs and offensive coordinator Al Borges will take full advantage of the attributes each back brings to the table.