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2010 A-U Pre-view: the RBs

Third in WBE’s season preview series. Previously: Expectations, the QBs.

It's all led up to this.

THE CAST

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.)

THE BREAKDOWN

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.

THE PREDICTION

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

4.41 stars

Photo via Scott Filmer.

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