Auburn, Ala.--There is little doubt that Auburn’s running game is in good shape for the 2006 season with All-SEC performer Kenny Irons returning after his breakout season in 2005.
The Tigers also have Brad Lester and Tre Smith back as well as true freshmen Ben Tate and Mario Fannin to turn to if needed. The one name you might not hear or may forget about is junior Carl Stewart.
Auburn’s biggest back, the 6-2, 225 Stewart has been used sparingly the last two seasons on the Plains after redshirting as a freshman. In 2004 he rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns on just 39 carries. He added 151 yards last season, but had to fight through a knee injury late in the year that kept him slowed even into spring practice.
Stewart has come out in preseason practice with a lot of energy and looks like he’ll take an expanded role in 2006 offense.
That was evident on Wednesday as he rushed for 67 yards on just six carries in the first scrimmage of preseason. His most impressive play came on an inside zone play where he took the handoff heading left. Turning the corner, Stewart cut back inside briefly before bouncing back outside on the way to a 25-yard gain.
Always a fan of Stewart, offensive coordinator Al Borges says that the big back's play was one of the highlights of the scrimmage.
“It’s the same ole Carl,” Borges says. “The first guy has trouble getting him down. That’s another thing--I thought all our backs ran the ball very hard. We broke a lot of tackles.
"I thought our line came off, particularly on our inside zone plays, and gave us a chance to get most of our plays started. Our passing game is way behind, but I say that and this wasn’t a scrimmage about throwing the ball. We’ll have another one of those later. This was about toughness and coming off the ball.”
Toughness is something Stewart has shown the coaching staff in his time at Auburn. Because of that and his size he is the leading candidate to play the role of Ronnie Brown in this year’s offense, a back who plays both tailback and fullback and at times lines up as a receiver. Stewart says that he knew coming into the fall that would be his role and he’s fine with that.
“I’m trying not to be greedy,” Stewart points out. “I’m going to go where they tell me to go and if coach tells me to do something then I’m going to do it without complaining. It’s a big adjustment, but I have been in this role for the past two years. The year before they were kind of pruning me for this so I’m used to it now and I’m really comfortable with everything they put me into.”
Jonathan Palmer has been Mr. Versatility for the Auburn offensive line in the last two seasons.
Like Stewart, Auburn’s offensive line had good production in the running game Wednesday. Despite allowing pressure on the quarterback on several pass plays, the offensive front moved the line of scrimmage to allow the Tigers’ offense to run the ball effectively for much of the scrimmage. Stewart says that even though they didn’t run much of the offensive packagage, they were still able to have success because of the guys up front.
“Even if they know what we’re doing we’ve got the offensive line coming off hard and doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “As long as they continue to do it like that then it doesn’t matter if they know what we’re doing or not.”
With Joe Cope out of action for the Tigers after straining his knee early in preseason practice, the center position has been changing as first Jason Bosley got much of the work with the first team and then senior Jonathan Palmer moved from right tackle to the position. That has meant better play in the middle for the offense as Palmer’s experience and size have given the line some stability.
“I think we did okay,” Palmer says about the scrimmage. “It’s not enough. We are here and there, but we’ve got to put it together every play. The heat was deadly out there and it was hard, but you’ve got to push through it. Overall it was pretty good.
“We definitely did some good things,” he added. “The first couple of drives we had some turnovers and that stopped the drives. In the running game we were looking pretty good, especially considering the heat. We were coming off the ball pretty hard.”
The heat is something that several players mentioned following the hottest conditions of preseason on Wednesday. Despite being in top physical condition heading into two-a-days, Palmer says with temperatures in the 90s and a heat index well over 100 degrees it is draining wearing football gear.
“You can never prepare for a day like that,” Palmer says. “During the summer we work out and it might last 45 minutes. We were out there at least two hours. You can’t prepare for it physically because of all the pads. You just have to prepare mentally and hopefully your body comes with you.”
With Palmer at center the Tigers are looking to build depth at tackle while he’s gone. On the left side junior King Dunlap has been solid since getting back on campus following a death in the family. The right side hasn’t been as good though as Leon Hart and Antwoin Daniels have struggled to take over for Palmer and drawn the ire of Coach Hugh Nall in practice. Palmer says that he believes they’ll continue to improve and days like Wednesday will only help them in the process to become better.
“We just have to become more of a unit,” Palmer says. “We have to get everybody on one page and competing until the whistle blows. Overall I think we’ll be fine. A day like that builds mental and physical toughness because most places don’t get this hot. It prepares you very well for the game. That’s what Coach Nall’s focus is, to make practice as hard as possible so the games will be easy.”
2006 Inside the Auburn Tigers Auburn Football Guide
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