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April 25, 2012

Tate's journey from AU to NFL

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Two years ago, during the days leading up to the 2010 NFL Draft, Ben Tate was nervous. The former Auburn star was anxious.

"I was a lot of things," said Tate. "There was a lot of anticipation."

Tate projected to be a second-round selection in the Draft. He had just finished his senior season at Auburn in which he rushed for 1,362 yards and 10 touchdowns. He just finished a college career that included a total of 3,321 rushing yards, good enough for No. 5 on Auburn's all-time rushing list.

"I was confident that I would get drafted somewhere in the second round," said Tate. "But it was still very emotional."

Especially on Draft Day.

"Throughout the day, there were all kinds of emotions, just tons and tons of different emotions," he said. "It was an emotional roller coaster."

The emotional ride ended when expected. In the second round, with the No. 58 overall pick, the Houston Texans selected Tate.

"It was just a big relief," he said. "Finally getting to hear your name called."

Tate nearly didn't get to hear his name called that day. A little more than a year before, he was ready to take his chances in the 2009 Draft.

During the 2008 season, Tate's junior season at Auburn, the Tigers' first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin quit mid-season, Tate rushed for just 664 yards and three touchdowns, and Auburn finished 5-7.

"After Franklin left, for me things started to go downhill," said Tate.

So much so, that after the season, Tate made a decision.

"I was leaving," he said. "I felt like I could be doing more for the team, but that I was being held back. I was going to take my chances in the NFL.

"In my mind, I knew I could play football and just given an opportunity by an NFL team, whether I was drafted in the sixth or seventh round, I knew I could make it."

But before Tate could leave, the coaching staff did. In December of 2008, Gene Chizik was hired to replace Tommy Tuberville as Auburn's head coach. Chizik then hired Gus Malzahn as offensive coordinator and Curtis Luper as running backs coach.

"Once Coach Chizik, Coach Malzahn and Coach Luper got there, just from talking to those guys made me want to stay," said Tate. "Coach Chizik said that if I came back, bought into what they were doing, was a leader and showed the young guys the ropes and do things the right way, 'I'm going to give you the ball as much as you want'.

"And I'm not a guy that just buys into what anyone says, but there was something about Coach Chizik and how genuine he was when he said it."

Tate was also convinced by Luper, his new position coach. Luper is a former college running back.

"He had been there and done it," said Tate. "You have more respect for a guy who has played the position, who has actually been back there, grabbed the ball and ran it."

Luper played running back at Oklahoma State for three years behind future NFL Hall of Famers Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas, and one year at Stephen F. Austin.

"I respected Coach Luper. He told it like it was," said Tate. "He would tell me that I needed to work on my hips more and that he had some drills for me to do that would help me with my hips, my footwork. He told me exactly the things I needed to work on."

Even things Tate needed to work off, like a few pounds.

"Once he was there long enough and watched enough film, he sat me down in his office and said, 'Hey, man, I think you weigh too much,'" Tate recalled. "I said, 'Coach, what are you talking about?' And he said, 'You're running around out there 220-225 pounds, and you can hold that weight, but I'm telling you if you drop about 5-6 pounds, lean up a little bit more, you would be more elusive. I think it would be better for you.'

"It was the little things like that and I bought into those things. That summer, I dropped weight. I played my senior year at 215 pounds and that was the lightest I had played since I was 212 pounds as a freshman. I benefitted from losing that weight, and I still am. Every season from then until now, I'm still the same weight. Last year, I played at 214-215."

Last year was Tate's first full season in the NFL. After sitting out his rookie season in 2010 with an ankle injury, Tate returned in 2011 and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards. And he did it as a backup.

Playing behind All-Pro running back Arian Foster, Tate rushed for 942 yards on 175 carries and four touchdowns. His 5.4-yard average per carry ranked third in the NFL among backs with at least 100 carries.

"I'm not exactly where I want to be at this point, but I'm getting there," Tate said. "It's still a learning process for me. I'm still learning some things, but no one likes to be a backup.

"I want to be a starter, but I'm in the position God put me in. I'm here for a reason. I'm going to keep working hard, keep learning and always working to be the best."

When the 2012 Draft begins on Thursday, no Auburn running back will be nervous or anxious. The Tigers will not have a running back selected, but Tate believes the absence of Auburn running backs in future draft won't last long.

"Auburn is 'Running Back U'," he said. "We've got Onterio (McCalebb) coming out next year and a bunch of young guys that are going to be really good."

Tate thinks the "young guys" are in good hands, as is the Tigers' reputation for producing NFL running backs. Auburn currently has five former running backs in the NFL: Ronnie Brown (Philadelphia Eagles), Carnell Williams (St. Louis Rams), Brandon Jacobs (San Francisco 49ers), Mario Fannin (Denver Broncos) and Tate (Texans).

"With Coach Luper, I feel like 'Running Back U' is in the best hands," said Tate. "He helped me. Coming back my senior season and playing for Coach Luper was the best decision I have ever made.

"I'm now living the dream and I know he will help the others live theirs."



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