AUBURN, Ala. — Mario Fannin’s one-game stint as Auburn’s punt returner might be over.
Wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor, who is in charge of Auburn’s return game, said he thinks the Tigers will use a different player to field punts this week after Fannin struggled in the opener, muffing a punt and misplaying another.
“We gave everybody, managers, trainers … I’m telling you, we had an open tryout,” Taylor said. “The biggest deal for our guys back there is decision-making. If you just simply catch it and we walk off that field and it’s our ball, then we’ve done our job.”
Freshman Anthony Gulley is a top contender, having been on the field for Louisiana Tech’s final four punts Saturday. He returned one for negative-1 yard.
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Other contenders include Quindarius Carr, Demond Washington, Emory Blake, Zac Etheridge and Walt McFadden.
Fannin remains an option but has so many other duties that the team doesn’t want to overload the junior.
“Mario’s playing 70 snaps,” Taylor said. “I mean, that’s quite a bit. So we want to make sure that we have guys back there that are fresh.”
Destined for action
Running back Eric Smith, who returned to the team Monday after a 2 1/2-week absence following his arrest for third-degree assault, will not only be in uniform this Saturday against Mississippi State, he will have an active role.
“I’m really proud of the way he’s responded to the things we’ve asked him to do,” head coach Gene Chizik said. “I think he’s ready to play. Obviously, early in the week, maybe a little sluggish. Nothing alarming but probably what you would expect playing himself back into playing shape. We expect him to play Saturday.”
The 5-foot-10, 237-pound Smith could play a couple of positions. He can play as a regular tailback or in Auburn’s hybrid fullback/H-back role.
“It helps because we have three running backs last game,” running backs coach Curtis Luper said. “It helps because he has some experience.”
Smith’s return also increases the likelihood that freshman Dontae Aycock will redshirt. Luper said it would be nice to, but it’s too early to make that judgment.
Not so fast
Chizik doesn’t want to pull the reins back on freshman running back Onterio McCalebb, but he does want to hold back the hype after the freshman ran for 148 yards in his debut.
“People can jump to a lot of conclusions with one football game,” Chizik said. “We don’t know what he is yet. He had one good football game, and there was a lot of other people responsible for his success other than him. That was one game out of the box. We’ve blinked and moved on.”
The speedy McCalebb remains the backup to starter Ben Tate, despite getting two more carries than the senior in Auburn’s opener. The coaches still want to see McCalebb become a well-rounded back.
“He’s got to continue to just be a better football player,” Chizik said. “As the season goes on, whether he has earned the right to handle the ball more remains to be seen. If he does earn that right, can he do it? Well, that remains to be seen, too. So we’re kind of in a feeling out process, too.
“We’re not going to put a whole lot of stock into a guy that rushes for 110-some odd yards one time. If you do it six or seven times in a row, now you’ve got our attention.”
Chizik didn’t get into specifics about injures but said, “It’s really going to be about the same crew you saw.” That could mean Adam Herring starts in place of Eltoro Freeman (hamstring) at weak-side linebacker again. “We think today he looked better,” Chizik said of Freeman. “But I don’t want to be premature on saying that. We’re hoping he’s able to play Saturday.” … The Tigers still are rotating kick returners. “I’m not looking for a guy that’s going to dance,” special teams coordinator Jay Boulware said. “I’m looking for a guy that’s going to get downhill.” Terrell Zachery, McCalebb, Neiko Thorpe and Fannin are the top contenders.