AUBURN, Ala. — Every day he walks into the interview room after practice, Auburn’s Mario Fannin gets asked which position he played.
Every day seems to provide a different answer.
At times, the junior is an H-back; at others, he is a running back. He has dabbled some as a slot wide receiver and will be one of the first in line to return kicks. And, with his background as a high school quarterback, he always is a contender to get in the game when the Tigers use the Wildcat formation.
“I kind of like moving around,” Fannin said, not giving a preferred position. “(But) it’s not really about what I like. Whatever is going to help us win, that’s what I want to do.”
As with the former coaching staff, Gene Chizik and his crew think highly enough of Fannin’s versatility to use him in a variety of roles. While Fannin officially is listed as a running back on the roster, he is better described as an H-back, a hybrid role that includes elements from the tailback, fullback and tight end positions.
“Mario is such a great athlete,” Chizik said during spring practice. “He’s great in space. He’s physical. He can do so many things right now. You’ve got to find ways to get him the ball.”
It begs the question: is Fannin too versatile for his own good? His true position has been a point of contention since he arrived on the Plains. After redshirting in 2006, he ran for 448 yards in 2007, scoring three touchdowns against New Mexico State. He capped his season with 71 total yards and a touchdown catch in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson, portending big things in the future.
But Fannin separated his shoulder in the spring of 2008, then moved to wide receiver at offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s request, virtually disappearing from the offense. He bounced around before settling back at running back halfway through the season, breaking out for 59 rushing yards, 48 receiving yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Georgia.
The hiring of a new coaching staff brought back questions about his best position, however. In the offseason, the 5-foot-11 Fannin bulked up to 230 pounds to play H-back, spending the majority of his time in the spring with tight ends coach Jay Boulware working at the “3” position in offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn’s scheme.
In two years at Tulsa, Malzahn used 6-foot-3, 230-pound Charles Clay in the hybrid role. As a freshman and sophomore, Clay caught 107 passes for 1,488 yards and ran for another 449 yards. He scored 19 total touchdowns.
“That player in that position in coach Malzahn’s offense has been a very productive player,” Boulware said.
So far this August, Fannin has branched out from the H-back role. During one practice, he split out wide during a receivers drill to work on his hand-eye coordination.
He also has spent a large part of his time with running backs coach Curtis Luper, working in a more traditional ball-carrying role with starter Ben Tate at the “4” position. He got a few carries there during Tuesday’s scrimmage.
“I did all right,” said Fannin, who shaved 5 pounds off his frame since the spring to regain some speed. “It’s about getting more carries and getting the feel of it. I missed some holes. I was going too fast. I’m used to being at the ‘3.’ I’ll get it down. I’ll be able to read more in the zone. That’s the main thing — getting a feel for it.”
Auburn’s new offensive look has revived another question: Will this finally be Fannin’s breakout year?
“A lot of people ask me about it, and I just tell them the same thing: If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” Fannin said. “You can’t really force it. I’m just taking my time and playing every play to the fullest.”