AUBURN, Ala. — When a football team splits carries between two different-sized running backs, it is practically sportswriting law to identify the bigger one as “Thunder” and the smaller one as “Lightning.”
In Auburn’s case, neither of the two players involved are fond of being typecast.
Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb formed a solid 1-2 punch for the Tigers in their 37-13 season-opening win against Louisiana Tech. McCalebb ran for 148 yards and a touchdown, and Tate added 117 yards, the first time since 2007 that Auburn had two players top 100 rushing yards in the same game.
The duo seems to work perfectly as a power/speed combination, with the 5-foot-11, 218-pound Tate being the former and the 5-foot-10, 164-pound McCalebb the latter. But Auburn’s coaches don’t want to limit them to one style of running.
“I think the bigger guys can run inside and outside, and I think the little guys can run outside and inside too,” coach Gene Chizik said. “Is one of them more suited for one rather than the other? Possibly, maybe. But they can both do both, and they both will.
“We’ve only played one game, but we want to be a physical offense and run the football. As I’ve said since Day 1, whoever we give it to has to be able to do both.”
There is little doubt about McCalebb’s speed. The freshman, who prepped at Hargrave Military Academy last year, runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, according to teammates.
Although quiet and soft-spoken at times, he takes on a different personality on the field.
“He’s a big talker,” cornerback Walt McFadden said. “He’ll let you know what he’s going to do. When he’s feeling it, he knows it’s going to happen. When he says something, I know he’s going to do it.”
He isn’t satisfied with simply being a speed back, however. While McCalebb tried — and succeeded — in getting to the edge on many of his runs Saturday, he is adamant that he won’t back down from oncoming defenders, despite his diminutive size.
“A lot of people say I’m little and stuff,” he said. “I’ll tell them, ‘I’m coming at you full speed.’ I let them know I’m coming.”
“For a small guy, I wasn’t sure how we was going to hold up being so little, but he broke through some arm tackles,” left tackle Lee Ziemba said. “I was real impressed.”
Tate, meanwhile, scoffs at the idea of being the power back. The senior, who entered the season as the undisputed starter, has long made the claim that he is faster than he gets credit for, although he admits McCalebb is the fastest of Auburn’s running backs.
“I wouldn’t really call myself a thunder back,” Tate said. “I’m not a Brandon Jacobs guy. I’m not going to run everyone over, but I’ll pick and choose my battles. If I see a linebacker that’s about my size, I’ll try him.”
Regardless of styles, Auburn’s backfield picture is clearer after one game. McCalebb (22 carries) and Tate (20) were the only two running backs to get carries Saturday. H-back Mario Fannin, a tailback last season, was used exclusively as a pass-catcher, although coaches haven’t ruled him out as a ballcarrier.
Freshman Dontae Aycock was in uniform but didn’t get on the field. He is more likely to redshirt now that sophomore Eric Smith is back after a 2 1/2-week absence from the team following his arrest for third-degree assault last month.
However the Tigers split carries, they will continue to attack all parts of the defense, inside and out.
“I think it causes problems for a defense,” Chizik said. “One guy may be a tackle-to-tackle guy and the other a perimeter guy, so you have the defense running all over the place, and they get a little tired, which lets you get more physical up front with the downhill backs.
“So it definitely puts pressure on a defense.”