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Running Back U. Still. Always.

Haven't forgotten, have you?

There’s still 51 days to go until Auburn plays Arkansas St., maybe only 50 if my math’s off. So it’s probably smart to keep the unbridled optimism and pre-emptive 2010 hero worship on a slow burn. There’s still a ton of time to preview the team, downplay the weaknesses and celebrate the strengths, and as a blogger, writing “WE GONNA ROCK” posts now probably just means repeating one’s self later.

In fact, this post is a de facto repeat of something I’ve already written a couple of times, namely, that Ben Tate–great at he was–isn’t going to be missed. But dammit, yesterday I’m writing about Michael Dyer and watching him run for Little Rock Christian, just a couple of days after I’d watched the Auburner’s Alabama and West Virginia highlight packages and reminding myself of how hard Mario Fannin ran when he had the ball last season, right around when I was thinking about Onterio McCalebb’s road to Auburn and remembering how dynamic he was in the early part of last season … and it hits me that this running back unit is going to be good. Damn good. Not just “replace Ben Tate” good, but “one of the best units in the country” good.

A few days ago, Jay Coulter wrote of Fannin:

Look for Onterio McCallebb and freshman Michael Dyer to take some of the load off Fannin. If he stays healthy, Auburn could have a backfield that rivals that one in Tuscaloosa.

No doubt that statement would draw chortles and snickers from anyone and everyone not wearing orange-and-blue glasses. But you know what? He’s right. Last year the Tide’s top three backs ran for 2,708 yards, the top three Tiger backs for 2,212. 500 yards difference isn’t anything to sneeze at, but I’ll be surprised if Ingram, Richardson, and RB-to-be-named-later (probably Eddie Lacy) can surpass that number, or even match it; a weaker defense means more deficits, which means more passing, and there’s been noises that Jim McElwain’s going to rely more heavily on McElroy and Jones anyway. Meanwhile, Auburn’s improved D and loaded O means more playing from ahead, which means more running, and even if the D struggles again, having the kind of offensive line Auburn has at the command of the kind of offensive coordinator Auburn has (in his second season!) should yield a big increase anyway.

The point: even I’m not sure I’ll argue Fannin, McCalebb, and Dyer can match Ingram’s and Richardson’s raw talent. (Not today, at least. Maybe once we see Dyer in action.) But if they stay healthy, yeah, their production is going to easily “rival” the Tide backfield’s. They might even surpass it. That’s how good they are.

Not that anyone outside of the Plains sees it. Most of the talk regarding the Auburn backfield has focused on the negative of losing Tate over the positives of the players replacing him. Phil Steele, in a strange fit of short-sightedness, ranked Auburn’s running backs the 32nd-best in the country.

That’s nonsense. Here’s why:

They just don’t know how good Mario Fannin is, do they? They think that because he’s never carried the load before, he’s just a guy, just a running back. We know better, don’t we, Auburn fans?

We know he’s the guy who would have put that 2007 offense on his shoulders and never looked back if he’d just been able to hold on to the damn ball. He’s the guy who Tony Franklin put into cold storage and who came out just long enough to damn near win that 2008 Georgia game by himself. He’s the guy who touched the ball 76 times in 2009 and averaged a gain of 9.2 yards every time he did, 8.4 yards every time he carried it. He’s the guy who we’ve known ever since that 2007 South Florida game would just start crushing people if his health and hands and coaches would give him the opportunity.

He’s going to get it. He’s going to blow minds.

It became easy to forget how good Onterio McCalebb was. Here’s how four of the first five weeks of his Auburn career went:

vs. Louisiana Tech: 22 carries, 148 yards (6.7), 1 TD

vs. Mississippi State: 16 carries, 114 yards (7.1), 1 TD, long of 48

vs. Ball State: 8 carries, 83 yards (10.4), long of 62

vs. Tennessee: 13 carries, 51 yards; 3 receptions, 62 yards (7.1 per touch); 2 kickoff returns, 91 yards; 204 all-purpose yards

He just wasn’t the same after that, and neither, really, was the Auburn offense. He still finished the year averaging 5.4 yards per-carry, nearly 10 yards a reception.

Now he is healthy, and thanks to the weight added in spring, more likely to stay that way. The fear is that the new bulk may slow him down some. Maybe at first, but by the time the season rolls around, he’ll have been carrying it for months. He’s going to be the same player he was when he shredded Tech, flew past State, terrorized Tennessee. He’s going to be that kind of weapon. The fear should belong to Auburn’s opponents.

Michael Dyer is going to hit the ground running. Dyer is a consensus five-star running back recruit. Five stars at Rivals, five at Scout, five at ESPN. Rivals and ESPN are stingy enough with that kind of praise that that’s a pretty rare thing; in the three years ESPN’s been putting together their rankings, only seven backs have qualified as “consensus” five-stars.

Unfortunately, there’s some pretty big busts amongst those players. Darrell Scott went nowhere at Colorado. Marc Tyler can’t get off of USC’s bench. Bryce Brown wasn’t useless in his freshman season at Tennessee, but he hardly set the world on fire and now who the hell knows what’s happening to him.

But here’s the thing: a lot of the greatest running backs in college football over the past several years have also started out as a consensus five-star. Noel Devine. C.J. Spiller. Beanie Wells. Going back to 2004, Adrian Peterson. I guess the jury’s still sort of out on Trent Richardson, but when an awful lot of people (including your humble Auburn blogger) think you’re secretly better than the Heisman winner on your own team, that’s a pretty good start.

That’s the sort of company Dyer is keeping. That’s the kind of potential we’re talking about. And if Dyer lives up to it, we’ll know from Week 1. Those kinds of players didn’t wait around, and running back is the easiest position on the field to make the leap from high school to the college game.

No, we don’t know Dyer will be a superstar rather than a superbust. We don’t know he’s going to leave great swaths of destruction in his wake in his time on the Plains. But that’s the way the odds are tilted, and Auburn’s track record with backs highly-regarded by the gurus–Cadillac, Tate, even Stephen Davis back in the primordial ooze of recruiting coverage–tilts them even more. The guess here is that Dyer will one day be recognized as one of theb est backs in the SEC, and the country.

And Auburn will add him to a backfield that already includes Fannin and McCalebb. That will run behind Ziemba, Pugh, Isom, and Berry. That will face a defense worried about Newton and Adams and Zachery and Eric Smith (who could probably go for 100-plus a game his own damn self if he had to) and a host of others.

If they stay healthy, they are going to make Mr. Steele’s “No. 32” ranking look as foolish as anything he’s ever written. They are going to incinerate people. They are going to be great. More than that–they are going to be Auburn great.

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