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Tailbacks Are Strong, Fullbacks Lack Experience

When Auburn takes the field for its season-opener against Washington State Sept. 2, it will be loaded at tailback. The fullback spot will be a work in progress with a few tailbacks filling in at the position depleted by graduation and injuries.

In 2006, the Tigers will have the best talent in college football at the tailback spot. Four players return from last season, along with a true freshman, who could have the opportunity to showcase his talents right away.

A year ago, Kenny Irons was just trying to move up the depth chart as the grind of two-a-days were about to begin. During those long, hot practices in August, Irons struggled to learn the offense and failed to impress the coaches as the season-opener quickly approached. At the end of preseason practice, he was Auburn's fourth-string tailback. With patience and progress during fall practices, Irons got a chance to play and never looked back. 

Kenny Irons will be strong again in 2006. (Photo courtesy of autigers.com)

The big break for Irons came in the third game against Ball State. Against the Cardinals, he racked up 147 yards and two touchdowns on just 11 carries. Irons soon became a workhorse in the backfield averaging 139.1 yards per contest and 28.9 carries per game in Auburn’s last seven games.

Irons finished with 1,293 rushing yards, which is the sixth highest single-season total in school history. Against teams ranked in the Top 10 in rushing defense, he rushed for a whopping 218 yards against LSU and 103 against Alabama.

Last year, Irons often became fatigued as the game moved into the fourth quarter because of the massive amount of carries he saw in the first half. During seven of the nine complete games Irons played last year, his average per carry was higher in the first half than the second half. Sophomore Brad Lester is expected to get about 10 to 15 carries per game so Irons can be fresh when the game enters the final quarter.

Lester can be an important part of the offense if he stays healthy. He missed all or parts of at least six games last season because of a hamstring and groin injury. Despite the injuries, he gained 339 yards and had five touchdowns on just 52 carries. 

Tre Smith will be a versatile player lining-up at tailback, fullback, and slot receiver. (Photo courtesy of autigers.com)

Senior Tre Smith had a solid spring and could line-up at tailback, fullback or as a slot receiver. Junior Carl Stewart also had a solid spring, but his role in the offense could be limited due to the depth at running back.

Newcomer Ben Tate graduated high school a semester early so he could participate in spring drills. As a senior, Tate became the leading rusher in Maryland high school history with 5,920 yards and helped his team reach the state championship game.

While Auburn has plenty of depth at tailback, the fullback position is thin after Jake Slaughter graduated and is now trying for a spot on the Kansas City Chiefs' roster. Sophomore Mike McLaughlin was expected to replace Slaughter but a knee injury in spring practice slowed him down and his health is questionable when the season begins in September.

Walk-ons Andrew Turman, Danny Perry, and Stephen Gowland will compete for the starting job if McLaughlin isn't healthy enough to play. Lester and Stewart could also see playing time at fullback in certain situations.

Running backs coach Eddie Gran is excited for the season to begin because he knows the running game will be solid this year after some uncertainty heading into preseason practice a year ago. Gran expects the Tigers to put up big rushing numbers in 2006, which will give them a chance to compete for another SEC title.

Phil Marion

Coming next week: A look at how the offensive line will be experienced and steady without Marcus McNeill and Troy Reddick. Also, the tight end position will have a new starter with the departure of Cooper Wallace.

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