LOCKED AND LOADED

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Other than the quarterback position, Auburn’s returns plenty of depth and experience on offense including a large and talented group of running backs.

While AU running backs coach Eddie Gran is expecting a lot of competition among his tailbacks, he’s also looking for much better execution out of the new spread offense.

AP: Rob Carr
Lester had a career-high 98 yards rushing against Bama.

“What we’re trying to get out of the offense this spring is trying to be perfect and really paying attention to the details of this offense,” said Gran. “It’s so detailed and you really have to pay attention to the little things for it to be really, really good.

“We had nine days (to install the offense in bowl practice) and we missed some things coaching, I did, that aren’t going to be missed in the spring. We’re going to demand it.”

Auburn’s top two rushers from last season – senior Brad Lester and junior Ben Tate – are back and will likely compete for the starting position this spring.

“With Brad being here and being the leader of that group and Ben Tate coming along the way he has, I think we’ve got a lot of experience,” said Gran.

“We’ve got great competition and in this new offense they have an opportunity to be in space and catch some more balls and really have an opportunity to get some bigger plays.”

After missing the first six games of the season due to a suspension, Lester returned to start five games, rushing for 530 yards and three touchdowns on 125 carries.

Lester quickly found a home in the new spread offense, rushing for 57 yards on 14 carries and catching three passes for 24 yards in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

The biggest area of improvement Gran wants to see from Lester this spring is his receiving skills.

“For Brad, catching the ball a little more consistently is something we want him to work on,” said Gran. “He dropped two in the bowl game. If we’re going to be great, those running backs can’t drop balls.”

AP: John Bazemore
Tate has rushed for 1,295 career yards in two seasons.

Tate led the team with 903 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 202 carries last season. Gran is looking for even more out of him this year.

“I think what he’s done since his freshman and sophomore year, he’s gotten better each year. When he got here he had just turned 17 years old,” said Gran. “When you look at him right now in our offseason conditioning program, he’s having a great offseason. He really looks good. He’s gotten faster. I see him being a huge part of this offense.

“He’s going to challenge Brad for the No. 1 spot. I think it’s going to be a great competition this spring.”

But the competition for playing time doesn’t begin and end with Lester and Tate. Senior Tristan Davis could make a big move this spring.

“If you’re going to be running 80 snaps a game, neither of them are going to be able to go 60 or 70 snaps. That just doesn’t happen anymore,” said Gran. “What’s going to be exciting is where Tristan falls into this pushing Brad or Ben.”

Davis was pushing for serious playing time during preseason practice last fall before two foot injuries sidelined him for much of the season.

“He really looked good the first week and a half of practice,” said Gran. “I think he has a lot to prove. He’s been a great team guy. He’s moved positions. What his role is on offense will be up to him.”

Gran said Davis is not quite 100 percent yet but should be by the time spring practice gets underway Feb. 28.

AP: Dave Martin
Fannin is a big-play threat on offense.

“He just got a pin pulled and it’s healing,” said Gran. “He ought to be ready to go before the 28th for sure. He’ll be full speed.”

Auburn returns another experienced running back in sophomore Mario Fannin. One of AU’s most versatile and exciting players, Fannin will line up at a number of positions in the spread offense.

“Mario is in a great spot because you can get him more touches both ways,” said Gran. “If coach wants him to have 15 touches then however he can get them, that’s how he’s going to gameplan it. Some are going to be from the backfield, some are going to be split out wide and some are going to be split inside, some are going to be in motion.

“He’s going to have those opportunities. He’s going to be able to touch the ball.”

Fannin was used in that capacity in the bowl game, rushing for 18 yards on three carries and catching a team-high five passes for 53 yards and a touchdown.

“That’s why he got moved to where he was,” said Gran. “He’s one of, if not the most dynamic players we have.”

A fullback is not necessarily a big part of the spread offense but Gran has big plans for freshman John Douglas. When AU uses a two-back set, Douglas will line up at fullback. But he’ll also spend time this spring working with assistant coach Steve Ensminger and the inside receivers.

“He’ll kinda be in that Tommy Trott position but be coached by me when he comes back in the backfield and we go two-backs,” said Gran. “He’s going to be in a dual role.

“John is going to be another versatile player.”

Douglas redshirted last fall and Gran said he’s a solid 235 pounds now.

“Coach Yox has great things to say about him,” said Gran. “He’s ready to start contributing. He’s are only true fullback so he’s going to get those reps.”

Auburn’s annual A-Day game is scheduled for Mar. 29.

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