Comfort The Goal For Luper And Running Backs

Auburn running backs coach Curtis Luper talks about the upcoming spring practice for the Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.--For Curtis Luper and the rest of the Auburn football staff, the last month has been a whirlwind of activity as they put together a Top 15 recruiting class in the country as well as got started learning new offensive and defensive systems.

Coming from Oklahoma State along with Trooper Taylor, Auburn's new running back coach had a very good job, but said that when Chizik called he knew he his next job was in the SEC at Auburn.

"That is the reason I came to Auburn," Luper said. "That is 80 percent of the reason I am here. The other 20 percent is that Auburn is Auburn. Coach Chizik was my mentor. I tell everybody he called me back for the last 15 years every time I called him even in the '04 season and the '05 season when he was undefeated irrespective of how busy he was he would give me a call. He was instrumental in me getting every job since we left Stephen F. Austin after the 1997 season.

"As he progressed in his career, his calls carried a little more oomph behind them. We always stayed in touch. I knew it was inevitable that I would be able to come back and work with him at some point in time. I never knew when or where, obviously, so when this job came open and he got it I was waiting on the call."

Another reason Luper took the job at Auburn was because of the chance to work with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Keeping an eye on Tulsa's offensive success under the coordinator, Luper said that the new Auburn staff has already gotten a head start on spring practice with a crash course in the offense and he likes what he has seen.

"We spent a lot of time," Luper said. "We were here for six hours on Saturday and we were here (Sunday) afternoon. For us it is seven days a week since our families aren't here we can kind of do it. I was familiar with the system in a sense from a distance 60 miles away in Stillwater so I sat there and watched him at a distance for two years, but now we are getting into it intimately and seeing where we can put our existing players and plug them into this system and now we know how to recruit to it.

"His system calls for lots of versatility. Guys are multiple. You move them around. Guys can catch the ball, guys can throw the ball, guys can play quarterback. The most multiple players give him the opportunity to really move them around and keep defenses off balance."

One of the keys for Malzahn's style of offense according to Luper is versatility and movement from the skill personnel. That could mean a lot of touches for a guy like Mario Fannin, but doesn't discount the importance of players such as Ben Tate and Eric Smith who are more suited for the power game. Luper said all of them will have a place in the offense and will get a long look in spring practice.

"I watched every touch that Ben Tate, Mario Fannin and Eric Smith had last year--every play they ran," Luper said. "We watched them individually and as a staff. We needed to know what they brought to the table and where we can plug them in.

"They played, which is good. They have game experience. Even Eric played last year, which is good for us. They are tough, physical runners which you need in this conferences because the defenses here in the SEC dominate. Very seldom does one guy carry the load in this conference--maybe Knowshon Moreno last year is one that I can think of. He alone had 250 carries and 1,400 yards---whatever he had.

"We are going to use multiple backs so those two (Tate and Fannin) in particular are tough, downhill runners with deceptive speed. You will see them this spring. They will be better than they were last year. They are 220-pound backs that are big, strong, tough, physical and are smart. They have some other intangibles. They can catch the ball. We will be able to move those guys around and keep people off-balance. They will move the chains. They are not home run hitters, they are not 4.3 guys who can take it 70 and change a game, but they may be able to do that."

While Tate and Fannin are more of a known commodity, Luper said he liked the quick feet and balance of Smith and is anxious to see him in spring practice. The same is true of signee Onterio McCalebb. More of a home run hitter because of his speed, Luper said he thinks he can be a guy to watch in this offense.

"Onterio is fast," Luper said. "He may be the change of pace guy from Ben, Mario or Eric. You just never know until you get them out on the field and see how they react when let's say they get hit in the mouth. Then you know. We have a certain expectation coming in as coaches where we think he is like this or that. He will either prove us right or wrong. We will just wait and see."

With spring practice scheduled to begin on March 17, Luper said right now the focus for the running backs is improvement and learning the offense. He said if those things occur then everything else will take care of itself.

"If you look at practice 15 after the spring we have to be very comfortable in the offense," Luper said. "That takes a while to get a comfort level then you can actually perform. It's my job to ensure they are comfortable so they can play to their ability. If you're uncomfortable and you're thinking then you can't play.

"We want to come out of the spring with a thorough understanding of the offense, the ins and outs of everything we do. That will add a level of comfort that will enable them to be able to turn it loose and play. Running back is still one of the easiest positions to play. They shouldn't have any excuses."

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