AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn running backs coach Curtis Luper spoke confidently about his group last week, touting the experience of his multitude of veterans and the raw skills of his newcomers, seemingly immune from the crippling depth problems his fellow assistants have had to deal with all month.
Eric Smith’s arrest and tenuous standing on the team doesn’t bring the Tigers’ running back depth to a critical level, but it certainly changes the position’s dynamic.
Auburn, at least for now, has one less option in its running game. Coaches have already determined that senior Ben Tate will be the primary ballcarrier, but they still need to establish a clear No. 2 out of a group that includes H-back Mario Fannin and true freshmen Onterio McCalebb and Dontae Aycock.
“Obviously, you need two in this league. We think we have three who could possibly do what we ask them to do,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said last week, before the Smith ordeal. “We’re going to figure out that order pretty quick.”
The coaches would like to get Tate 20 carries a game with another player getting 10 to 12, enough to keep Tate fresh while adding a change-of-pace back to the offense.
Fannin, who moved to H-back in the offseason, can still play at the “4” position in Malzahn’s offense, the number designated for the regular running back. But taking him out of the H-back role would limit the ways coaches planned to use him this season.
McCalebb, at 5-foot-10, 164 pounds, is the smallest but speediest of the backs. He runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash and is a touchdown threat every time he touches the ball.
“He’s a playmaker,” Luper said. “We’ll get the ball in his hands. We talk with coach Malzahn about touches — this person gets this many, this person gets this many, these are the people we have to get touches. He falls in that category of someone who has to get touches.”
The drawback is McCalebb’s inexperience. He’s yet to play in a college game since arriving on the Plains from Hargrave Military Academy last January, and blocking remains a concern.
“He’s gotten a lot better, a whole lot better,” Luper said. “He’s gained 12, 15 pounds so that’s helped. Plus he’s been in the system for eight months. They did some voluntary work in the summer, and they worked hard. There’s also some carryover from what they did in the spring.”
Aycock, a converted high school quarterback, seemed like a prime candidate to redshirt before Smith’s arrest but might find himself on the field now. The 5-11, 231-pound freshman from Tampa, Fla., has had to learn the playbook on the fly after arriving in Auburn this summer. He’s also moved to a variety of spots this August.
“It’s been tough for him,” Luper said. “Learning this offense is tough for anyone. … But he’s athletic. It’s good when they’re better than you think they were. Eight months ago we knew he was good, but he’s better than I thought he was.”
The biggest hole left by Smith’s absence is the lack of a power back. The 237-pound Smith was the only running back on the roster over 230, the kind of runner who excels in short-yardage situations. Now, that role will probably be filled by Tate (218 pounds) or Fannin (225 pounds), neither of whom are best described as smashmouth backs.
Regardless, they have faith in their coaches to put them in the right spots to make plays.
“It’s something we have to trust them on,” Fannin said. “We do. We trust them every day when it comes to that aspect. I just can’t wait to see us get out there and play.”