Auburn running backs sort out roles

abitter@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 30, 2009 

AUBURN, Ala. — Ben Tate might not be the fastest running back on the Auburn roster, an honor that goes to speedy Hargrave Military Academy transfer Onterio McCalebb, but he’s tired of being pigeonholed as the team’s power back.

“Some people always tell me when I run, I never look fast,” Tate said. “I’m like, ‘Really? Well race me.’”

The 5-foot-11, 217-pound Tate ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash when the team was timed before Auburn’s pro day. That’s just as fast as tailback Mario Fannin, who is largely considered by outsiders to be the speedier of the two.

Tate, who puts himself among the fastest players on the team along with cornerbacks Walt McFadden and Neiko Thorpe and wide receiver Harry Adams, thinks it’s his longer stride that makes him look slow.

“Most of the guys on our team think I’m fast,” Tate said. “But everybody else, they be like, ‘I don’t know.’”

Tate ran for 664 rushing yards last season, a disappointing dropoff after he put up 903 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007. So far, he’s drawn strong praise. Running backs coach Curtis Luper thinks he can be a 1,000-yard back. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn likes what he’s seen in the early going.

“He has that physical edge,” Malzahn said, “that mentality that we’re looking for.”

While Tate is quick to point out his speed, he still won’t go up in any direct competition against McCalebb, who was clocked at 4.3 seconds in the 40.

“I won’t race him,” Tate said.

Pierre-Louis on long road back

Wide receiver Philip Pierre-Louis spends most of practice watching, the orange non-contact jersey preventing him from getting in when the action gets heavy.

“At times, I feel a little frustrated, but that’s what comes with injuries,” said Pierre-Louis, who is still recovering from a torn right ACL. “So I’m just taking it one day at a time. Soon enough I’ll be out there.”

Pierre-Louis, who was expected to play a big part of Tony Franklin’s offense, hurt himself on the first play of last season. He didn’t think it was serious, even jogging off the field under his own power. It wasn’t until they tested his knee than he found out about the ACL. Six months later he’s still in the recovery process, wearing a brace to protect his knee.

The 5-foot-8, 157-pound receiver isn’t sure yet how he will fit in Malzahn’s offense, but the coordinator isn’t turned off by the redshirt freshman’s diminutive size.

“A lot of people say little guys can’t be receivers,” Malzahn said. “But I always look at it, ‘What’s their range?’ I’ve seen some little guys in the past that had great range and they played like a big receiver.”

Cole impresses early on

Coaches are usually hesitant to single anybody out early in spring practice, but safeties coach Tommy Thigpen likes what he sees so far out of sophomore Drew Cole.

“On every play, he strains his body,” Thigpen said. “He really wants to learn it.”

The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Cole played in 11 games last year as a true freshman, mostly on special teams. With Zac Etheridge (shoulder) in a non-contact jersey, Cole has moved up to working at strong safety with the second team, while Christian Thompson works with the ones.

Extra points

Malzahn said the team should have the majority of its base offense installed by the end of next week. ... Defensive coordinator Ted Roof singled out junior outside linebacker Craig Stevens for the second straight day. “Funny how it keeps happening, huh?” Roof said. “He’s very coachable. He’s a salty veteran.” ... Add guard Byron Isom to the bulked-up offensive lineman club. The junior is up to 300 pounds, a 15-pound increase from last year. He’d like to be at 305 for the season.

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