Auburn, Ala.--Despite losing running back Kenny Irons to the NFL after last season, one position that few Auburn fans were worried about coming into the preseason was Coach Eddie Gran's charges in the backfield at running back. Following injuries to Tristan Davis and Carl Stewart in the preseason as well as the normal bumps and bruises for redshirt freshman Mario Fannin, things didn't look as good last week as the Tigers began to work on Kansas State with just two healthy tailbacks and one of those players who may not be able for action in the opener.
One of the keys to the Auburn offense, Stewart was back running close to 100 percent at Tuesday's practice, bringing a smile to Gran's face. That helps to alleviate the burden at tailback where Fannin, Brad Lester and Benjamin Tate have all proven they can be effective runners as the Tigers prepare for Saturday night's opener vs. Kansas State. However, Lester, who is number one on the depth chart at tailback, is questionable for Saturday night's game, according to head coach Tommy Tuberville, who is expected to learn later this week on whether or not the junior will be academically eligible for the Tigers vs. Wildcats game.
With Lester's status uncertain, that makes Tate an even more valuable player as the Tigers prepare to open the 2007 season. One of the top performers in preseason practice at any position, Tate has come back stronger and faster than last year when he finished third on the team with 392 yards rushing and three touchdowns on just 54 carries. His average of 7.3 yards per carry is the best for any running back at Auburn in at least the last 15 years with at least 50 carries in a season.
Ben Tate had much of his success against non-conference opponents and added 23 yards on just four carries against Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl.
Heading into the season opener, Tate has been locked in a battle with Lester and Fannin for the number one tailback spot. While it's important to be the first guy in, Tate says in the end it doesn't really matter because all will get a chance to shine and get the job done.
"Competition doesn't do anything but make everyone better," Tate says. "There's definitely competition here. That's one thing that helps me out every day is that you've got to come in and work hard.
"We've got three or four great running backs and the only thing that will separate us is who works harder and does the little things right," he notes. "All three or four of us could really start here so you have to do the little things right to separate yourself."
A confident player player, Tate seems to be a running back who loves the game of football and is always talking and taking jabs at his defensive teammates. Because of that he sometimes takes a ribbing when he takes a big hit or is stopped for a short gain, but for Tate it's all about playing the game. In the end he says that's all that matters to him this week, just to play and help the Tigers win.
"My expectation is first of all for us to win," Tate states. "Also for me to do good and put up some decent numbers--just play good overall."