AUBURN, Ala. — Michael Dyer came out of a block and braced himself, but he didn’t have his feet under him.
Auburn’s freshman running back paid the price, taking a solid shot from an unidentified defender that knocked him back, something he never had experienced during his storied high school career.
“Sometimes you just take it; I took one,” Dyer said with a shrug. “I don’t know who it was, but it was a pretty good lick.”
It’s been a learning process this August for Dyer, a rare combination of power and speed who is the most ballyhooed high school running back Auburn has signed since Cadillac Williams in 2001.
ESPN ranked Dyer as the No. 1 running back in the country. Rivals and Scout put him No. 2. Auburn fans have dubbed him a future superstar.
Yet the stocky, 5-foot-9, 215-pound freshman, who ran for an Arkansas state record 8,097 yards and 84 touchdowns at Little Rock Christian Academy, has tried to ignore the hype.
“I usually just go out and try to do the best for the team and let the other things take care of itself,” he said.
Low key defines Dyer, who, for all his acclaim, has maintained a relatively low profile six practices into August. Neither head coach Gene Chizik nor offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn voluntarily has mentioned his name to reporters so far. Stranger yet, they are rarely asked about him.
But Dyer will play this season. Running backs coach Curtis Luper said as much before the season started. The question is: How much?
Senior Mario Fannin is the starter until further notice, so entrenched that Luper promised a 1,000-yard season, as he did last year for Ben Tate.
But there’s also speedster Onterio McCalebb, a sophomore who electrified Auburn’s offense early last year before an ankle injury slowed him. He has bulked up to 180 pounds, 15 more than last spring, to be more durable.
As a result, a featured role might not be in Dyer’s immediate future. Recent history supports that thought.
Of Rivals’ top-five running back signees last year, only Texas A&M’s Christine Michael led his team in rushing. The other three who played — Tennessee’s Bryce Brown (101 carries, 460 yards), Alabama’s Trent Richardson (145 carries, 751 yards) and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson (59 carries, 334 yards) — served as understudies to older players.
There are outliers. Pittsburgh’s Dion Lewis ran 325 times for 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman, finishing third in the nation in rushing. But the Panthers had no veteran alternative.
“You never know,” Fannin said. “Freshmen, they come in, it’s just a matter of learning the offense. That’s the whole thing. If he does, he does, and if not, we’ll push him along and help him learn and hopefully he can still help us.”
Dyer admits to a learning curve. He said Malzahn’s offense requires more precision than he ever has been used to. It’s faster and more intense.
“There’s more rules, there’s more regulations, things you cannot do,” Dyer said.
But if there’s anyone who can pick it up quickly, it would appear to be Dyer, who studies the playbook whenever he can and, as his recruiting ranking suggests, is a rare player.
“He’s eager to learn, and, when you add that to the fact that he’s just naturally talented, then we’re headed in the right direction,” Luper said.
Still, it’s a process. Dyer knows he no longer is the best player every time he steps on the field, a truism at the prep level.
“I know that there are players that are better than me, bigger and stronger than me, so every little thing counts,” Dyer said. “If the coaches need it, that counts. The little block. The little shove. The little contact, all that, the things I need to take in mind.
“All of them can do exactly what I do, but it’s the little things that separate the good and the great and the best.”