First in a series. An intense three-day series.
The Starter: Ben Tate (Sr., 5-11, 218)
The Backups: Onterio McCalebb (Fr., 5-10, 165), Dontae Aycock (Fr., 5-10, 221)
The Wildcard: Mario Fannin (Jr., 5-11, 225)
The Outside Possibilities: Eric Smith (So., 5-10, 237), Anthony Gulley (Fr., 5-9, 176)
We all know the book on Tate by now: savvy veteran leader, tough-running bruiser, better speed than his reputation, poised for his long-awaited breakout season. (Of course, “better speed than his reputation” has ironically become part of his reputation, so maybe his reputation now portrays his speed accurately.) With Curtis Luper promising a four-digit yardage total for the year and Tate boasting an iron lock on the starting position for now, it’ll be a major surprise if anyone else leads Auburn in rushing this year.
But that’s not to say Tate doesn’t have plenty to prove or that Tate leading the team in rushing would necessarily be the best thing for Auburn. (If your team’s leading yardage total comes 2.9 yards at a time, that’s not a positive.) For all that the offensive blame in 2008 fell on Tony Franklin, the quarterbacks, the receivers, even the hobbled offensive line, Auburn’s tailbacks were far from meeting their usual Running Back U standard. Brad Lester was hurt; Smith couldn’t hang onto the ball; and Tate, looking confused and tentative in Franklin’s zone-read heavy scheme, showed only the slightest glimmers of the explosiveness that gave him the team’s highest per-carry average as a freshman in 2006. Fannin was the only player who ever truly looked like, well, an Auburn tailback.
So naturally, Fannin has been moved (again) out of the tailback spot to another role on the offense in order to make sure Tate stays on the field. If Auburn’s offense is going to be as potent as it will likely need to be to spell our first-and-only-string defense, Tate has to be more than the plodding cloud-of-dust back he appeared to be much of last year. The good news is that with Luper’s guidance, the confidence of having both the No. 1 spot to himself and a healthy offensive line in front of him, and of course Gus Malzahn calling plays, every single sign we’ve had is that he will be.
But hey, even if he isn’t, or if he’s injured, will Auburn fans worry much if Fannin–still the most naturally gifted running back on the roster–is suddenly shifted back to tailback to take over the starter’s role? Probably not. (Though it might not make Malzahn look particularly smart if Fannin looks like the better back from Carry 1 again.) The worry is if Tate is hurt and Fannin can’t be moved for whatever reason; with Smith M.I.A. until further notice, Auburn could be forced to give its power carries to Aycock, who didn’t seem to quite build as much buzz in fall camp as some fans (like yours truly) were expecting.
Of course, in the event of the loss of Tate and Fannin sticking at H-back, Malzahn could also just dial up more swings for the fences with McCalebb. At 165 pounds it doesn’t seem possible McCalebb would last for longer than a half as an every-down back, but on a team as starved for playmakers as Auburn is, there’s no freaking way a home-run threat like McCalebb doesn’t see the ball 10-15 times a game. Fourth-quarter touches against defenses (hopefully) exhausted by Malzahn’s pace seem especially likely and threatening.
As for the two longshots listed above, Gulley looks today like the most likely replacement as the change-of-pace back if McCalebb is hurt … but he’d have competition, and at that point Malzahn might just stick with the power brigade anyway. It’s hard to see Smith getting any carries at all at this point; Tate would have to get hurt, Fannin would have to remain at H-back, Smith would have to beat out Aycock despite his current practice sabbatical , and all of that would have to follow Smith simply finding his way back into Chizik’s good graces in the first place. I’m not seeing it. But with Smith’s talent it’s not worth ruling it out completely.
Tate begins and finishes the season as the starter, makes good on Luper’s 1,000-yard promise, and eventually receives All-SEC consideration as he and McCalebb become the latest duo to receive the hoary old “thunder-and-lightning” nickname. But the occasional burst from Fannin–along with a slower back half to Tate’s season, thanks mostly to stiffer defenses and an increasingly banged-up line–means Tate finishes his Auburn career still regarded as an underappreciated, good-rather-than-great back.
Aycock breaks out against Furman while Smith redshirts, but Fannin is still the favorite entering 2010.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE
Tate photo via.