It’s no longer just about misdirection or spread formations and hitting defenses in their soft spots.
With new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and the mandate he carries to make Auburn physical running team again, being a running back is about contact and getting the tough yards.
It’s about producing when the defense expects it and is lined up to stop it.
It’s about blocking, and not just blitzing defensive backs and linebackers.
Want to be a tailback at “Tailback U?” Better buckle that chin strap, and better know the playbook.
“It’s a lot different,” said senior Onterio McCalebb, a speed-back star in the previous system under former coordinator Gus Malzahn. “We got a lot more stuff. We got a lot more stuff to pick up.
“I think it’s going to be good when everyone gets the grasp of it. We still have to finish up the spring strong and go into the summer with everybody into it.”
The running back race has gotten second billing this spring behind the quarterback battle, but it is nearly as crucial as Auburn transitions to more of a pro-style offense and physical approach.
The Tigers have recruited backs like McCalebb to a spread-style system for four years. They’re used to running in open spaces and not used to their expanded role in pass protection.
Making it more challenging for Auburn, the Tigers lost the back that seemed most suited for the change when Michael Dyer, twice a thousand-yard rusher, transferred to play under Malzahn, now head coach at Arkansas State.
That leaves second-leading rusher McCalebb, a small-framer who got most of his yards using his speed on end-arounds in the spread game.
There’s sophomore Tre Mason, who stepped in when Dyer was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Alabama transfer Corey Grant has made in-roads with big plays in both spring scrimmages. He has shown ability to wait on blocks, using fullback Jay Prosch to lead him on his big gains. Once past the line, he has shown his 4.3-second speed and strength to break tackles.
There’s Florida transfer Mike Blakely, who was recruited to Auburn under Malzahn’s system and transferred while Malzahn was at Auburn.
“Mike is a very talented guy out of Florida,” Loeffler said. “He’s improving every day.”
There are others, including former Oxford standout Chandler Shakespeare. He’s the biggest one of the bunch at 209 pounds, but McCalebb, Mason, Grant and Blakely appear to be the ones most likely to hit the field this fall.
To hit the field, they have to show they can get yards against eight-man fronts, which they spent much of Saturday’s nearly 100-play scrimmage trying to do.
“We’ve got to get them more north and south,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “They’ve got to become, mentality wise, a little more physical in the run game.”
They’ll also have to help protect Auburn’s quarterbacks against those eight-man fronts.
“We’re asking a lot of those guys in our protections, not just picking up blitzes but also chipping some defensive ends,” Chizik said. “We’re going to have to be able to do that this year.”
Who is doing best so far?
It’s hard to say, because Auburn’s practices and scrimmages have been closed to the public. Perhaps a limited glimpse will come through in Saturday’s A-Day game, though coaches typically don’t show much in spring games.
Bits and pieces of scrimmage news have gotten though, and it seems Grant has made quite an impression. He was said to have made a nearly 40-yard run in the first scrimmage, and he said he went “15-20 yards” for a touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I really don’t like singling people out, but Grant has done a great job out there,” middle linebacker Jake Holland said. “There have been a lot good things from every running back, but Grant has really stood out to me.”
Grant described his big plays in the scrimmages as straight, “A-gap” runs behind Prosch’s lead.
Prosch could figure big in Auburn’s plans as a blocking back. He transferred from Illinois, and Auburn is appealing to the NCAA in the hopes that he will be available in the fall.
“Jay is an awesome player,” McCalebb said. “He gets in the hole. He blocks. He does what he needs to do.
“I congratulate him on that. I tell him that every time he gets on the field.”
Ultimately, it will comes down to the guy carrying the ball making the tough yards. The school that produced Bo Jackson and so many others who have played in the NFL will need to produce more than can get it done in a pro-style system.
“There’s no such thing as a depth chart right now,” Loeffler said. “We’re rotating guys in and seeing what they can and cannot do.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576. Follow on Twitter @jmedley_star.