While the quarterback position is the focus for many, perhaps just as important is going to be trying to find out who will take over for Ben Tate at running back. Rushing for 1,362 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, Tate's consistent play was a key for the Tigers on offense and took the pressure off the passing game allowing Chris Todd to take his game to another level.
This season with both gone another running back will have to do the same for Auburn's new starting quarterback. Position coach Curtis Luper says there is no question that Tate is going to be tough to replace after the way he played in 2009.
"We don't have anyone that has taken a significant amount of snaps at tailback," Luper says. "That's a priority for us to find someone who can do what Ben did for us or it may take two guys to do what he did. We'll find out over the next 15 workouts where we are with that."
The most obvious choice and the first in line to replace Tate is senior Mario Fannin. A part-time running back his entire career at Auburn, Fannin carried the ball just 34 times in 2009, but averaged 8.5 yards per carry. For his career Fannin has 172 carries for 982 yards and Luper said he thinks the powerful Fannin can get the job done.
"Mario is one of the most talented players on our football team," Luper says. "He was that last year. He's had a lot of playing experience so that helps, but he hasn't played the tailback position quite as much. He's a natural though so it won't take him long to get comfortable back there in the backfield.
Running back Onterio McCalebb
He won't be the only option though as speedy Onterio McCalebb is back after rushing for 565 yards on 105 carries with four touchdowns as a true freshman. Not big or physical enough to take the pounding in the SEC as a freshman, he came out of the gates fast with 38 carries for 262 yards and two touchdowns in two games.
Injuries slowed him after that as he missed two games because of an ankle problem and totaled just 303 yards and two touchdowns on just 67 carries in his last nine games played. He'll have a chance to show he's more durable this spring as he and redshirt freshman Dontae Aycock battle Fannin for the starting role.
"Onterio McCalebb has to gain weight in order to be a significant contributor for us," Luper added. "Dontae Aycock is still young and green. Those are our three guys. We'll see where we are as the spring progresses."
While McCalebb is still not as big as the Auburn coaches would like, Luper says the fact that he's been through an SEC season now and knows what it takes should only make him a better player the second time around.
"It has to help him because the only way they get better is to actually play in games and having a reference point," Luper says. "He has a reference point. He's played on the road at Georgia and Tennessee. He's been in big games. I expect a lot from him."
One of the keys to Auburn's offense, both in the running game and passing game, is running back Eric Smith. Playing a role that is part fullback, part tight end, part running back, Smith rushed for 99 yards on 21 carries and had a touchdown. He also added 18 catches for 226 yards and another touchdown. Luper says what he brings to the offense is invaluable.
"Eric is one of our most critical players," Luper points out. "He plays a critical position for us because he's versatile. He gives us the opportunity to spread him out, to line him up at fullback, he can carry the football, he can pass protect, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's a vital cog in our offensive success."
A player who could make an impact in the running game this spring and into next year could come as a surprise to some, but that role started in bowl practices as the Tigers prepared to face Northwestern in Tampa. Freshman Philip Lutzenkirchen worked some in that role with Smith suspended for the bowl game and Luper says he showed that he can be a help there in the future in addition to his tight end duties.
"Philip Lutzenkirchen will be back there some blocking a little bit," Luper says. "He'll kind of play the spot that Eric played last year. He's smart and he's tough. He got a lot better during bowl practice. If he continues to improve then he'll see some significant time for us next fall."
Auburn will open spring practices on March 24 with practices scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and Saturday scrimmages planned as well. The annual A-Day game is scheduled for April 17 at 1 p.m.