Gone are the days of Auburn running the ball 60-70 percent of the time. They have been replaced by a wide open spread attack designed produce more plays with the pass setting up the run. That doesn't mean the run will be ignored though as Auburn showed in a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over Clemson.
In addition to quarterback Kodi Burns running the ball, backs Benjamin Tate and Brad Lester combined for 28 carries and 104 yards with one touchdown. Tate's numbers put the cap on a solid sophomore season that saw him finish with 903 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. Lester added 530 yards and three scores in just six games.
Coach Eddie Gran says the return of both give the Tigers a solid one-two punch at the position heading into the spring.
"I think we've got two guys with a lot of experience--Brad is going into three years of really playing a lot and you have Ben Tate who has two years," Gran says. "I consider them both starters right now. I don't think we lose anything when Ben is in there or when Brad is in there.
"I think we've got two ones. They played like that in the last two games. I felt like in the Alabama game and in the bowl game they both really ran hard and did some things we needed them to do. They were learning the offense and getting excited about that and catching some balls."
Ben Tate led Auburn in rushing in 2007.
Perhaps the biggest positive for the running backs heading into their first season in Franklin's offense is the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Last season Tate and Fannin combined to catch 16 passes for 226 yards for the season, but six of those receptions and 43 yards came in the last game. Gran says that will be a big part of equation on offense for the backs in 2008.
"The biggest thing is that I'm excited about the opportunity for them to catch the ball and do something with it in space," Gran says. "For this offense to be great we've got to make sure at the running back position that when we make a catch we do something with it. We've got make people miss and get those hard yards. In the bowl game Brad caught a little arrow route and turned the corner and ran a guy over and we got about 12 yards.
"That's what we've got to do. If we don't do that we're not going to be successful. They're excited about that opportunity. I think as this thing evolves they're going to be in space in different ways such as lining up empty, catching screens, catching bubble screens. It just never got to that because it didn't evolve because of the nine practices."
Mario Fannin is a versatile player who could see action at a number of different spots in 2008.
Always a capable receiver, Lester could be a big weapon in Auburn's new spread offense, but Gran says that's just scratching the surface of what he sees the running backs accomplishing beginning in the spring.
"The thing about it is Ben catches the ball better than Brad," Gran says. "We caught eight or nine balls in the bowl game and Brad dropped two. In the first game we had a chance to catch 10 or 11 balls the first time in this offense. Those are big-time touches for us. You add Mario (Mario Fannin) into that mix and you're looking at maybe 15 a game. That's huge for a running back."
Perhaps Auburn's most talented back in terms of total skills, Fannin saw much of his action against Clemson as a slot receiver and Gran says he'll continue to do that, but his talents will also be utilized out of the backfield. As a redshirt freshman last season, Fannin ran the ball 84 times for 448 yards and five touchdowns. Gran says his skills make him a weapon they'll try to use in different ways in the new offense.
"He'll do both," Gran says. "He'll continue to do both, but it's mainly about getting him better in the slot. We know what he can do at running back. If he can get better at the slot position we can give him some touches there, too. We can always motion him back in and find ways to get him the ball in the backfield. That is easy."
Tristan Davis is hoping to be back to full speed this spring.
The wildcard of the group is speedy senior back Tristan Davis. Hurt twice last season with leg injuries, the first suffered as he was making a run at the starting job in fall camp and the second coming in his first game back against Florida, Davis will have his work cut out for him in the spring, but Gran says he's anxious to see how he responds.
"Coming out of fall camp in that first week and a half, Tristan was making a run at the job," Gran says. "He surprised me more than anybody, but then he got hurt. He came back and got hurt again. For the bowl game I just didn't feel comfortable putting Tristan in and saying he was ready to do all that.
"I probably put him in too early against Florida and he got hurt," Gran adds. "The first order of business is getting him healthy and right now he's still not healthy. He's on the way to that, but this will be a big spring for him."
Auburn's only other scholarship back is redshirt freshman fullback John Douglas. With the Tigers no longer employing the I-formation any longer, Gran says that Douglas' duties will be split between two positions much like Fannin because of his ability to catch the ball and make something happen after the catch.
"Steve (Ensmginer) and I will split time with him in meetings and on the field," Gran says. "John will be a guy that when we go two-back he will come into the backfield. We'll go two backs with two tailbacks and two backs with a true fullback. He'll also be a backup to Trott (Tommy Trott) and Gabe McKenzie. That's the position he's learning. He fit's the mold perfect for what we're looking to do."
John Douglas is a physical player who catches the ball well.
With 15 practice days scheduled from the opening of spring practice on Feb. 28 to the A-Day game on March 29, Auburn's offense will be trying to pick up as much of Franklin's offense as possible after getting just nine practice days in before the bowl game. Gran says that while they're going to be going full bore with a lot of learning planned, the goal for the spring is to improve execution of the new system.
"I think it is paying attention to the details and really learning this offense," Gran says. "Everybody is studying it and doing all the little things right. We never got to that part of coaching and the details and how you've got to be perfect. If you're perfect at this thing and you pay attention to the details and you do it right every time then you can be very, very successful. That's going to be our goal. We want to be perfect."