2008 Auburn Football Preview: Running Backs

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of previews featuring the 2008 Auburn football team.

Auburn, Ala.--Returning more than 100 percent of its rushing total from the 2007 season, the Auburn Tigers look to build on a solid effort in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl under coordinator Tony Franklin as the Tigers prepare to challenge for the SEC Western Division title this fall.

Losing just 49 yards from Carl Stewart last season, Auburn is in good shape at the running back position with co-starters Brad Lester and Ben Tate returning as well as veteran Tristan Davis.

Last season Tate ran for 903 yards and eight touchdowns to lead the team while Lester added 530 yards and three scores in seven contests. Throw in a potentially healthy Davis and coach Eddie Gran says you have the makings of a very good group in his opinion from what he saw at the end of spring practice.

"It was kind of a weird spring at the beginning with nobody being there," Gran says. "It was nice to finish the last couple of practices with all three of them. You could tell pretty quickly that we're better when all three of them are healthy.

"I guess the good news is that they weren't all healthy the last three practices, but they were good enough to play. You go into this thing thinking you've really got two number ones with Brad and Ben. They both have experience.

"I think we've got two number ones--it doesn't matter who plays there," Gran adds. "Going into last year through seven or eight practices, Tristan was making a run at the starting job. You throw him into the mix if he's full speed and healthy and he's going to make a push for this thing, too.

"Everybody is going to be competitive. It's going to be like it has always been here at the running back position. I'm excited about the way they caught the ball in the spring. The time they missed hurt, but I think going into this fall they are all three working hard. If they all three stay healthy we'll find enough touches for them all."

Ben Tate has 1,295 rushing yards in two seasons for the Tigers.

With Mario Fannin moving to wide receiver this season and not expected to see much action at running back, Gran says one of his goals in two-a-days is to find a fourth running back. The first order of business will be to give young guys such as Eric Smith and Reggie Hunt a look when they get on the practice field.

"We've got to get them in quickly," Gran says. "We've got to find out if one of them can be our fourth. We'll need a fourth. We'll let them get in there and whoever can do it will do it. I think we're going to need one of those freshmen to play for us."

One of the big questions concerning the running backs has been just how much use will they get in the new offense? That is something that Gran says got partially answered during the bowl game when he notes the team got just a taste of the potential of Franklin's offense by racking up a season high in yards on the way to victory.

"It happened so fast that you really didn't get to enjoy it," Gran says. "It got crammed in so quick and they got it into their brains that going into the spring was so much easier. Then it became a lot more demanding because then they had to understand the little things, the things we couldn't teach. The things that make this offense great we couldn't teach for the bowl game. We had to kind of make our point on how important the details were."

Tristan Davis has carried the ball 11 times for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his career, but doesn't have a carry since 2005.

Gran says the team got a full dose of Franklin's schemes and intensity on the practice field in the spring. For the running backs it meant a lot of work catching the football as well as improving on open field running. Gran says the change in philosophy offensively has been met with open arms by his running backs because they know it's going to give them a chance to make more big plays.

"Every one of them came in after the spring and told me how much they love this offense," Gran says. "They get to be out in space. If you throw a screen to a running back out in space, it's the same thing as running a toss sweep.

"It doesn't matter how you get your touches, football is football. They've got to prove when they catch the ball in space that they can make people miss. They've got to get those yards or we'll put somebody out there that can do that. Right now we're going to have that opportunity at the running back position because they've proven they can catch it and make somebody miss in space. If that changes then we'll get somebody else there."

That competition is something that Gran has always demanded of his players. Even back to the days of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, the challenge for the starting job has always remained open, but so has the desire to make each player do what is best for the team first. Gran says if this group can put team first then it too will have a chance to be special.

"I think that people need to see out of that group is just being selfless," Gran says. "They need to be humble in what they are doing. It's a lot like the year we had Ronnie and Carnell. You have this opportunity with three really good running backs. They are going to have to make sure they are positive in everything they do. If we can stay that way then we can really be successful."

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