Tailback U

If you decided to put together a documentary on the great running backs in recent SEC history, Auburn University would be a good place to start.

Tiger tailbacks have been an imposing bunch the past few decades. Joe Cribbs rushed for 1,205 yards in 1978, then spent nine years in the NFL, making three Pro Bowls. James Brooks ran for 1,208 in '79 and 1,314 in '80, then spent 13 years in the pro ranks, playing in four Pro Bowls.

Some guy named Bo Jackson followed with big seasons in 1983 (1,213 yards) and 1985 (1,786 yards). A lot of folks believe the '85 Heisman winner was the greatest back in SEC history.

Jackson's departure didn't end Auburn's string of great running backs, however. There was a brief drought following Brent Fullwood (1,391 yards in 1986) but James Bostic (1,205 in 1993) and Stephen Davis (1,263 in 1994 and 1,068 in '95) revived the tradition.

After another brief down period, Tiger tailbacks came back with a vengeance as the 21st century dawned. Rudi Johnson got the roll started with 1,567 yards in 2000. Ronnie Brown ran for 1,008 in 2002, then Cadillac Williams rushed for 1,307 (2003) and 1,165 (2004).

The run of talented tailbacks was supposed to end when Williams and Brown were taken within the first five picks of the 2005 NFL Draft but it didn't. An obscure South Carolina transfer named Kenny Irons ran for 1,293 yards in 2005 and added another 893 yards in an injury-plagued '06 season.

So, who's the next thoroughbred in Auburn's stable?

The question is obvious but the answer is not. Brad Lester, a 5-11, 194-pound senior, paid his dues as the No. 2 tailback the past two years. He started a couple of games while Irons was injured last fall but his best outing came in relief against national champ Florida. He rushed 17 times for 94 yards that day, helping the Tigers hand the Gators their only defeat of 2006.

The major concern is whether Lester has the size and durability to be a workhorse like so many of his Tiger predecessors. Auburn's head coach says the jury's still out on that question.

"Brad Lester last year and the year before was probably a little underweight," Tommy Tuberville said at SEC Media Days. "We've tried to put a little more weight on him to where he can be a guy that can carry the ball 20 times, 22 times a game. If he can do that, I think he can fit into the mold of Kenny Irons or Ronnie Brown or Carnell Williams or Rudi Johnson."

Lester was on the verge of locking up a starting job several times the past two years, only to have an injury interrupt his progress each time.

"Over the years we've tried to make him a starter," Tuberville said. "He'd get hurt.... But Brad's got the quickness to get it done. The thing he's got to do is be able to make it physically. If he can do that, I think he can be a heck of a running back."

If Lester can't take the pounding that goes with being a featured back, Auburn may rely on a rotation of him, Ben Tate, Mario Fannin, Tristan Davis and Maryville (Tenn.) native Carl Stewart.

"Thirteen years ago, when I came into this league at Ole Miss, I learned very early that you've got to have more than one running back," Tuberville said, adding that the players mentioned above "can play in this league. At one point or another, probably all of those guys by committee will be starters for us."

Senior quarterback Brandon Cox also believes the committee approach may be the Tigers' best bet in replacing Irons.

"We lost Kenny," Cox said, "but we've got Brad Lester, Ben Tate, Mario Fannin, Tristan Davis. Even Carl Stewart can play some tailback, so we have the talent. Kenny was a great player but we are loaded in the backfield."

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