AUBURN, Ala. — After years of waiting, Mario Fannin knows this is his last chance.
Auburn’s multi-purpose senior, whose career odyssey has taken him from running back to receiver to returner to H-back, is finally back where it all started — in the offensive backfield, ready to carry the ball as much as the Tigers are willing to let him.
“You can tell there’s a little more urgency to him this year,” Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “He’s really focused. I really feel like he wants to have a great senior year.”
It’s now or never for Fannin, a 5-foot-11, 227-pound former running back of the future, who’s claim to that throne has had its share of false starts. Don’t think that fact is lost on him.
“It’s a blessing being able to play tailback at Auburn,” said Fannin, who played H-back last year. “There have been a lot of great guys who have come through here, so being part of that tradition is big.”
The list is long and distinguished. Since Bo Jackson’s time on the Plains, Auburn has produced such NFL backs as Stephen Davis, Rudi Johnson, Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Kenny Irons. After a brief hiccup in production, Ben Tate returned the position to its rightful place among the SEC’s leaders, breaking out with 1,362 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior last year.
Despite the lack of a definitive spring depth chart, Fannin is the presumptive frontrunner to take the reins ahead of junior Eric Smith, sophomore Onterio McCalebb and redshirt freshman Dontae Aycock.
“He’s responded well to the competition,” running backs coach Curtis Luper said. “He wants to be a No. 1 guy. …
“He’s getting more comfortable there every day. In this offense, it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with the tempo and everything. … Once he gets comfortable, then we’ll be able to see the talents god has given him.”
Fannin’s career has taking a winding path. A converted quarterback out of Hampton, Ga., he was primed for a major role after redshirting in 2006, but three fumbles in two games early in 2007, including two on consecutive plays against South Florida, set him back.
“A lot of people just have that stuck in their minds,” Fannin said. “But you’ve just got to overlook it and just keep working hard and understand that happens, that’s football.
“You’ve just got to overcome it.”
Fannin ran for 448 yards his freshman year, but he had a tough time making headway in a backfield that included mainstays Tate and Brad Lester.
He moved to wideout briefly under offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s watch in 2008 but made a strong case to play tailback after Franklin’s ouster, making a cameo there near the end of the year against Georgia and scoring two touchdowns.
But when Gene Chizik and Malzahn arrived, Fannin was on the move again to H-back, in part to give carries to the speedy McCalebb, in part to showcase his versatility in the passing game.
Fannin finished with 990 all-purpose yards and looked solid in part-time duty as a ballcarrier, running for 285 yards on 34 carries, an 8.4-yard average
But with Tate gone, McCalebb’s durability a question and highly-touted freshman Michael Dyer not entering the picture until August, Fannin appears to be the best choice tailback, where he knows being an every-down back presents a different set of challenges.
“I’m definitely working on being mentally tough,” he said. “If you’re tired, you have to push yourself. If you want to come out after the third play of the drive, and you’ve broken a run for 25 yards and a 5-yard run, you’ve got to push yourself through it.”
Although Malzahn said it’s nice to have a workhorse back like Tate last year, he maintains that any team in the SEC needs two backs to be successful. Fannin, at least for now, looks like he’ll finally get the chance to carry the ball he’s long desired.
“They’re equipping me with the right tools to do that,” Fannin said. “I’ve just got to make sure I stay focused, keep working hard every day and make sure I do the little things right so I can become that.”