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February 18, 2009
AUBURN, Ala. - New assistant coach Curtis Luper has yet to step onto a practice field with Auburn's trio of returning running backs, but he already knows plenty about them.
"I've watched everything," Luper said. "I've watched every touch - Ben Tate, Mario Fannin and Eric Smith - every touch, every play that they ran. I've watched them individually. We've watched them as a staff.
"We needed to know what they brought to the table and where we can plug them in."
A rising senior, Tate led the team in rushing for the second straight season with 664 yards and three touchdowns on 159 carries last year. Fannin, a rising junior, carried the ball 54 times for 238 yards and a touchdown and also caught two TD passes.
Smith played in 12 games as a true freshman last fall, carrying the ball 21 times for 83 yards.
"They played, which is good that they played and have game experience. Even Eric played last year, so that's good for us," Luper said. "They're tough, physical runners, which is what you need in this conference. The defenses here dominate this conference. Very seldom does one guy carry the load in this conference.
"So we're going to use multiple backs, but [Tate and Fannin], in particular, are tough, downhill runners [with] deceptive speed. You'll see them this spring. They'll be better than they were last year."
Luper said he likes the potential of having two big backs like Tate and Fannin in his backfield.
"[They're] 220-pound backs that are big, strong, tough, physical. They're smart," Luper said. "They have some of the intangibles. They can catch the ball. We'll be able to move those guys around and keep people off balance. They will move the chains.
"They're not home-run hitters. They're not 4.3, 40 guys that can take it 70 up the gut and change a game. They may be able to do that."
Luper's initial evaluation of Smith is still limited.
"I didn't see much on Eric, but he has great feet and natural ability," Luper said. "He's young. He just needs to be developed, but he will contribute."
A fourth tailback has joined the group for spring semester in prep school signee Onterio McCalebb, who rushed for 775 yards and eight touchdowns in eight games at Hargrave Military Academy last fall. McCalebb also returned a kickoff and punt for touchdowns and scored on a 68-yard screen pass.
"Onterio is fast. He may be that change-of-pace guy from Ben or Mario or Eric," Luper said. "You never know until you get them out on the field and you see them react when, say, they get hit in the mouth. Then you know.
"We have a certain expectation level as coaches where we think he's like this or like that and he will either prove us right or wrong. We're just waiting to see."
Auburn will have four running backs in the spring and at least three more who join the team this fall. But Luper said there's no magic number when it comes to how many he'll play during a season.
"It really depends," Luper said. "In our best 11 players, if there are three running backs, they'll be out there. If out of our best 11 players, there's just one running back then he'll just be out there.
"[Offensive coordinator Gus] Malzahn likes to get the best 11 on the field, irrespective of position. So there could be one running back, could be three receivers or two tight ends. That's where the versatility comes in."
Luper said implementing the offense will be priority No. 1 when spring practice begins March 24. The annual A-Day game is April 18.
"We want to come out of spring with a thorough understanding - with the ins and outs - of everything we can do," he said. "That will add to a level of comfort and then they'll be able to turn it loose and play.
"Running back is still one of the easiest positions to play, so they won't have any excuses."