Forget the limos, the tree rolling, the smooth-talking coaches: Auburn’s best recruiting tool for prospective running backs might be Ben Tate’s on-field performance this season.
More specifically, the senior tailback’s 1,142 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
“When you have running backs out there trying to decide where to go, and you have a guy on your team that’s hit 1,000 yards in nine games, in this league that’s hard to do,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “I think the proof is there.”
It doesn’t look like that success will stop with Tate. The Tigers appear to have players lined up for the future at running back, with Mario Fannin emerging as a viable tailback option, Eric Smith thriving in the versatile H-back role and Onterio McCalebb, when healthy, the speed threat who adds another dimension.
That’s not to mention Little Rock, Ark., recruit Michael Dyer, a five-star back who committed to Auburn last Friday, or freshman Dontae Aycock, who redshirted this year.
“If you want to rush for 1,000 yards in this offense, you know you will have the opportunity to do it,” Chizik said. “Because we’re going to run the ball.”
Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has followed through on his pledge to be a run-based, smashmouth offense. The Tigers are averaging 230 rushing yards a game, second in the SEC behind Florida and 10th nationally. Tate, especially, has thrived, his 114.2 yards per game ranking third in the league.
But that might be more a product of opportunity. Fannin and Smith, Auburn’s two other big backs, have performed well when given a chance.
Fannin, a 5-foot-11, 225-pound junior, bounced around positions before settling in at H-back this year. But he has seen his workload as a tailback increase since McCalebb suffered an ankle injury at the end of September. Fannin has 18 of his 31 carries in the past three games for 151 yards, an 8.4-yard average.
“It’s been feeling good,” said Fannin, who started at tailback in last year’s Georgia game and scored touchdowns on a 52-yard reception and a 35-yard run. “Just being able to get back in that aspect of the game is pretty good. I just tell (the coaches) to put me where they want to put me.”
Fannin doesn’t limit himself to being a ballcarrier, however. His 29 receptions are second-most on the team, and his 328 receiving yards rank third.
“He is a guy who can carry two roles,” Chizik said. “He can be that wide receiver. He can be that tailback. You can put him in the game, and they don’t know which one he is. ... That’s a good thing.”
Fannin’s touches as a tailback have coincided with the emergence of the 5-foot-10, 237-pound Smith at H-back. The sophomore missed the opener after a 2 1/2-week team-imposed suspension following his arrest for third-degree assault in August. Smith has been granted youthful offender status in court, effectively sealing the case from the public. Chizik has not made him available to the media despite repeated requests.
Since returning to the team, however, Smith has been a model player, one teammates and coaches have raved about.
“Eric does the dirty work,” running backs coach Curtis Luper said. “You guys probably don’t see everything that he does, but he brings a physical element to our offense that we don’t have without him. He’s a very, very physical football player. One of the smartest football players we have here offensively — conscientious.
“He wants to get it done, and he doesn’t need the ball in his hands a lot, but he does have great hands. He’s made some big-time catches for us that have allowed us to continue drives and go on and score. Eric is invaluable for us.”
Tate said the running backs have the “Hands Club.” Smith, who has 17 receptions for 225 yards this year, presided as president for a while.
But the sophomore hasn’t been bad as a ballcarrier either, with 20 carries for 103 yards and a touchdown this season, foreshadowing good things for Auburn after Tate exhausts his eligibility at the end of the year.
“I definitely think this offense is suited for bigger-type running backs, because coach likes to pound it,” Tate said. “I think it’s a good offense for an SEC-type back.”