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Auburn’s backs expecting big but changed roles

AUBURN – No. 10 Auburn almost certainly won’t have a Heisman Trophy candidate emerge at tailback. A 1,000-yard rusher? That’s iffy, too.

If those things don’t happen, Ben Tate and Brad Lester can’t just blame the Tigers’ new spread offense but also each other. They’ll divvy up carries and playing time and are listed as either/or at No. 1 on the depth chart entering Saturday night’s opener with Louisiana-Monroe.

“We’re team players,” Tate said. “We’re not selfish. When they talk about us as a group, that’s a good thing. They’re saying we’re all good. That doesn’t bother us at all.”

The Tigers’ tailbacks have been mostly lost in the shuffle amid all the talk about new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s system and the quarterback battle between Chris Todd and Kodi Burns.

This is still Tailback U, though. Never mind that the running game was far from dominant last season and there isn’t a bonafide backfield star. Auburn might as well have a back named Lester Tate since they are generally talked about as a duo.

The Tigers will undoubtedly pass more and get a few more rushing yards from the quarterbacks in Franklin’s shotgun offense.

On the flip side, that means Tate and Lester also won’t be constantly running into defenses stacked near the line of scrimmage to stop the run. Chances are, they’ll also get more passes thrown their way.

Plus, Franklin’s running game at Troy was more productive than Auburn’s last season. For that matter, so was Louisiana-Monroe’s.

Tate rushed for 903 yards last season and Lester gained 530 despite being suspended for the first six games. Decent but hardly spectacular numbers especially considering both averaged less than 5 yards per carry.

Their confidence remains untouched.

“I definitely feel like the running backs can definitely be the strength of the offense,” Tate said. “There’s a bunch of us and we’re all talented. Our abilities are pretty much the same. We all just have a chance to be great.”

He would even rank Auburn’s backfield as one of the top two in the Southeastern Conference, declining to pick one that’s better. While Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno is considered a Heisman Trophy candidate, Tate feels there’s strength in numbers.

“I don’t know if we get the same respect, but that’s just how I feel,” Tate said.

The Tigers also have Tristan Davis, who averaged 19 yards on 11 carries in his brief appearances in the backfield in 2006. He was slowed much of last season with a foot injury and has been limited in practice recently with a tender ankle.

Freshman Eric Smith is a 230-pounder who coach Tommy Tuberville has said will play.

There’s enough depth there that the Tigers moved last year’s No. 3 rusher, Mario Fannin, to receiver in the spring. Fannin still gives props to his former backfield mates.

“I have no doubt in my mind they’re the best running back group in the SEC,” he said.

Now, they just have to prove it. The quick and shifty Lester has rushed for 17 touchdowns in three injury-marred seasons mostly spent as a backup.

The more straight-ahead Tate averaged 7.3 yards a carry as a freshman before taking a larger role last season. Both players’ averages dipped last season as Auburn suddenly became a middle-of-the-pack rushing team in the SEC.

Lester missed a number of practices last week but said he was just resting a sore hamstring and will be fine for the game.

Both running backs expect to play bigger roles in the passing game — or be downgraded by Franklin to smaller roles in the backfield.

“Now, we’ve got to be able to catch the ball,” Lester said. “He’s pretty much come to the conclusion that if we can’t catch the ball, then we’re not going to play.”