Third in WBE’s season preview series. Previously: Expectations, the QBs.
The Starter: Mario Fannin (5’11”, 228, Sr.)
The Backup: Michael Dyer (5’9″, 215, Fr.)
The Wildcard: Onterio McCalebb (5’10”, 171, So.)
The Specialists: Eric Smith (5’10”, 240, Jr.), Ladarious Phillips (6’0″, 290, Fr.)
I’ve already spent a lot of words this offseason telling you how awesome our running backs are going to be this season. (Yeah, “awesome.” There’s not any word for it.) There was the springtime ode to Mario Fannin …
For three years, we’ve been fed tantalizing glimpses of Fannin’s immense talent: the breakout against South Florida in ’07 (undone by those fumbles), the screen pass dash to the house against Georgia in ’08, the game-changing weave through an entire damn Mountaineer defense in ’09. We’ve seen these kinds of explosions despite the fact Fannin’s only received a handful of touches a game; what happens when he starts taking a handoff 20 times a night?
What I think happens is that Fannin finally has the kind of season we’ve always known he could have, the same way Tate finally went from a “good, not great” player holding the likes of Fannin back to Auburn’s offensive MVP and an all-time great, all in the course of a year.
… the promise that we wouldn’t miss Ben Tate …
Even if Fannin can’t rise to the occasion, there’s Michael Dyer. There’s plenty of examples of true freshman tailbacks stepping directly into the starting lineup and thriving, and the overwhelming majority of those backs haven’t had anything like Dyer’s advance hype. (Did you remember that the nation’s third-leading rusher last year was a true frosh? Ditto for the SEC’s leader in all-purpose yardage?) Dyer will of course have some intricacies to learn, but as far as “take handoff, gain yards” goes, he’ll probably do just fine.
And even if he doesn’t, who’s to guarantee that newly-buff Onterio McCalebb can’t take the reins? Like everyone else I’m skeptical he’d hold up under the bruising that comes with being the every down back, but we don’t really know how much of an impact his weight gain will have.
The point: between these three candidates and the general uselessness of returning starts at tailback in the first place, replacing Ben Tate is just about the least of Auburn’s concerns.
… the declaration that they are going to keep the Running Back U banner flying high:
And Auburn will add [Dyer] 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.
Nothing that’s happened during fall camp has dented that opinion in the slightest. If anything, Auburn’s running back corps looks even better now than it did when camp opened, for two reasons:
1.It’s all quiet on the Eric Smith front. No discipline issues, no academic problems, just quietly going about his business at H-back … where last year all he did was show off better hands than most of Greg Knox’s receivers and start blocking like he meant it. In hi second year in Malzahn’s system, in his second year at this position, heads are going to be knocked.
2. Yes, he’s almost 300 pounds. But it appears for all the world that Ladarious Phillips has the goods to get two yards on third-and-one, to get three yards on fourth-and-two. (At least, he will once he’s healthy again.) This is important.
So you get the point: I like our set of running backs, thin though the position may be. I like them a lot. I think they are going to smash people. Or, in McCalebb’s case, run past them with ease. But all I’ve looked at are the pros … are there any cons?
I suppose there’s a few. Both Fannin and McCalebb have an injury history; there’s no guarantee Fannin’s shoulder or McCalebb’s ankles are going to hold up. Dyer is still at least a tiny bit of a question mark until we see him on the field and could be a liability in pass protection. McCalebb might be just a shade slower after putting on a few pounds. Fannin’s fumbleitis could return. Phillips’ ankle could bother him all season long. If a combination of all these factors forced Smith into the starring role, he’s never handled being the workhorse before, either.
And see … even then, I’m like, “OK, worst-case scenario … Fannin’s out, McCalebb’s out, Dyer is fumbling all over the place or developed a brain condition where he sees holes in the line that aren’t there or something, we’re down to Smith as the starter with Reed or Morgan or Blake or one of the other gazillion high school quarterbacks in the McCalebb role …
dude, that wouldn’t be so bad.”
And it wouldn’t. Smith’s a solid ballcarrier. When Auburn’s worst-case scenario here is still that pleasant, you know how delirious the best-case scenario is.
Fannin makes good on Luper’s 1,000-yard prediction with games to spare, even though Dyer looks special enough to earn the same “actually the best back on the team” praise that Trent Richardson got last year. Meanwhile, McCalebb gets 10-15 touches a game and averages an obscene number of yards-per-attempt. Between the three of them and Newton, Auburn finishes in the top-15 nationally in rushing and lays claim to having the best backfield in the SEC.
Elsewhere, Phillips isn’t used as often or as successfully as the fans would like, but does come through with some big first downs down the stretch. Smith is Smith, just better.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE
Photo via Scott Filmer.
I think this unit is going to turn out a lot better than people think.
I am excited about Phillips, but I have a hard time seeing how a short yardage specialist will fit in with Malzahn’s hike-the-ball-as-fast-as-you-can-/I-ain’t-got-time-to-substitute offense. Not just this year, but future years also.
Eric Smith certainly belongs in the discussion of all the upperclassmen (Kodi, Zac, Aaron, Mike, etc.) we all want to see come back from their various incidents of adversity to have an impact this year.
I always get excited when the balls in the air and headed his way. I’ll be pulling hard for Eric.
Michael- -I could see him in situations where we ask the ref for a measurement on 3rd or 4th and short- -having the few seconds to run him in, for say E. Smith- -and the first 2 or 3 times he barrels ahead for 2 yards. Then, later in the season, say, against UAT? He comes in, fake to Day-Day, and then Newton rolls out for a keeper/throw option and runs some corner back through the back of the endzone.
Can next week get here faster?
I think Malzahn might also run Phillips in if we’re talking about a huge third/fourth quarter conversion where it’s more important to make sure we get it than keep the momentum going. I’d think. Dunno. I think we all kind of have to wait and see what the coaches’ plans are with him … making the injury all the more frustrating.
If you remember how bad our 3rd and Short offense was last year, you know that Ladarius Phillips certainly isn’t going to hurt.
Besides, from his highlight tape, it looks like one day he’ll be perfectly effective on 1st and 10, let alone being a specialist guy.
Maybe its just me but Eric Smith catching the ball reminds me of the Carl Stewart wheel route, it just always worked.
Alex P in Smyrna G says
audashdriver: Exactly! Great comparison.
That wheel route was MONEY. Whatever happened to Carl Stewart?
Malzahn tried to get the wheel action going with Fannin on more than one occasion last year … and I think pulled it off with Smith at least once, too. But it’ll never be as great as it was with Stewart.
You guys beat me to the punch–I LOVED watching that wheel route go uncovered and seeing Stewart just trucking down the field with the ball…
Could we work that in against Alabama, Gus? Please?
Do you know who else ran that wheel route pretty well? At least I remember it that way for some reason.
Casinious Moore. RB #22.
I thought RonnieB ran a few food ones out of the FB position in ’04 after the fake to Caddy. First drive UGA maybe? This article has me pumped WBE!
About all I remember about C*******s M***e is that he had a hard time holding on to the ball… and folding chairs.
Re: The ’04 Georgia game – play-action fake to Caddy (who then levels all-SEC DE Pollack with a block) with Ronnie on the wheel route. Score!
I see Da-Da in for a critical first down – first as a go-to, then as a fake to sucker in the LBs (seriously, they’d HAVE to key on him). Either way, he’s solid gold in the lineup on short downs. And as a surprise pitchout? I’d like to see the CB or safety who has to execute an open field tackle – the before and after photos will be priceless.
War Damn Eagle!