With two All-SEC caliber tailbacks on the 2003 Auburn football team's roster with Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown returning plus a talented backup in Tre Smith along with junior college star Brandon Jacobs in the mix plus a Tennessee Mr. Football honoree (Carl Stewart) arriving for the fall, it is logical to ask the question.
Do the Tigers have too many talented tailbacks? "I don't know," says Gran, who coaches Auburn's tailbacks and fullbacks. "They said we had too many last year. The same question got asked last year at this time. What are you going to do with Carnell, Ronnie, Chris Butler and then your new guy, Tre Smith?" Gran points out by the time the Tigers reached the regular season finale, a 17-7 road victory over Alabama, freshman Smith was the only tailback still standing as injuries sidelined the others.
"We have talked as a staff and if those guys are your best players then you have to get them on the field," Gran says. Head coach Tommy Tuberville, new offensive coordinator Hugh Nall and Gran all told Inside the Auburn Tigers that Auburn fans can expect to see more than one tailback on the field at times this year. The Tigers are expected to run some three-back sets, especially in short yardage situations. They are also expected to use the tailbacks as fullbacks, too. At times they could line up the tailbacks as wingbacks and run the ball from that position or be used as receivers in the passing game. In the past, the tailbacks have lined up like flankers or split ends. The offensive coaches will look at that option again in the spring.
With Williams coming off of surgery to repair a broken bone in his leg, his spring practice time is expected to be limited. The same is the case for redshirt junior Brown, who has already proven himself to the coaches. Brown was the offensive MVP of Auburn's bowl victory over Penn State on New Year's Day when he thoroughly outperformed Penn State star Larry Johnson. Brown rushed 1,008 yards last season at 5.8 yards per carry. Williams, who played in just six and a half games, rushed for 745 yards at 5.3 per run.
Ronnie Brown will be a redshirt junior this season.
When spring practice starts on March 4 newcomer Jacobs and true sophomore Smith will see plenty of action and attention in the 15 days the coaches can prepare the team this spring. Stewart, a tailback from Maryville, Tenn., High, will join the mix in August.
At fullback, the Tigers return senior-to-be Brandon Johnson, who is coming off an impressive junior season. At times, the offense will use a tight end like a fullback, but there is no doubt that there is a shortage at the fullback position this spring. Two signees, Tez Doolittle from Opelika and Rudy Taylor from Hollywood, Fla., could bolster the depth at that position when they start practice in August.
"Probably the biggest goal for the spring is to continue to perfect this offense," Gran says. "As you go back and you watch the cutups of the season from last fall there are a lot of things that we can improve on. We were successful in some things, whether that be pass protection, running precise routes or knowing and recognizing fronts to know where that hole is going to be. We need to make sure that we keep getting better at that, and get it to perfection, because that is what we're striving for.
"Individually, you would like to come out of spring with everybody healthy," Gran adds. "I would like to see Brandon Johnson be able to go through 15 practices and come out ready to go for the fall. It is going to be a big goal for us to see that happen." Johnson, who is a tremendous blocker when he is healthy, has been plagued by injuries as a collegian.
"Also in the spring, if there are situations where we are using two tailbacks we need to find out if they can do the same thing that Brandon Johnson's doing for us," Gran says. "Obviously, we have got to come out of it finding out where Brandon Jacobs falls into all of this. Is he a contender against the other three? Tre obviously has proven he can help you win in this league. I think it's going to be a competitive spring. And we're going to have to find out who wants to go over the top."
Jacobs, at 6-4, 260 pounds, was considered the nation's top junior college running back last season at Coffeyville, Kan., Community College. He will definitely be one of the most watched players this spring by both the coaches and Auburn fans.
"Brandon has got good hands, and that's something, though, that we're going to have to test this spring to see where he's at," Gran says of Jacobs' receiving ability. "There is no question that the other three tailbacks, plus Brandon Johnson, can go out at any time and show their great hands. This spring we are going to have to see how far along Brandon Jacobs is. All eyes are going to be on him. I know the other three tailbacks can do it. Not to put any pressure on him, but I think the kid wants pressure.
"You ask him, and Brandon Jacobs wants to start. It is just like last year when Tre Smith came in here wanting to start. He didn't want to play a backup role. To me, that's why we've been successful at that position because these guys come in here, and they see the competition, but they still come because they're not afraid of competition. They're not afraid to try to be the best."
Gran says that he considers signee Carl Stewart a player to watch, too. "He is going to have every opportunity, just like Tre Smith did. If you recall, Tre Smith got a lot of reps going into fall camp because we had to find out if he was going to be playing for us. And through fall camp, he earned himself a spot. He didn't play right off the bat. We weren't going to throw him to the wolves, but as the season went on, Tre Smith became a pretty good part of our offense."
Editor's Note: This is part nine of the series of articles previewing spring football. Part 10 will run on Monday.