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Mario Fannin, Auburn redshirt freshman running back, fumbled twice in two carries in the Tigers' overtime loss to South Florida on Saturday.
AP photo by Todd Van Emst
Mario Fannin, Auburn redshirt freshman running back, fumbled twice in two carries in the Tigers' overtime loss to South Florida on Saturday.

Fannin says Saturday's mistakes behind him

By Ross Dellenger 340-2460

AUBURN — Running back Mario Fannin was disgusted and disappointed as he walked off the field, his head down in disgrace.

It felt like a nightmare, like the world was crashing in on him. Fannin had already fumbled once, and then it happened again on the next carry. And worse, South Florida recovered this one, too.

As he reached the sideline, one of his teammates went to offer condolences.

The seething Fannin wasn't in the mood. He pushed him away as he paced up and down the home sideline, punching the air in anger.

"I've kind of forgot about it," said Fannin, a redshirt freshman from Hampton, Ga. "I've just got to make sure I don't make the same mistake. It was my fault. I've got to hold on to the ball."

Fannin never got another carry after those back-to-back fumbles in the third quarter, but coaches say that's not the end for the 5-foot-11, 220-pounder.

"He'll get better each week, and he'll learn from his mistakes," said Tuberville, who noted that Fannin didn't get any more carries because "if he (fumbles) one more time, you might not get him back the rest of the year."

But Fannin's confidence was back just a day after his erratic night. Among the two smears, he led the team with 62 rushing yards on 14 carries and scored his first collegiate touchdown.

"I've just got to move on," he said, wearing just a white undershirt that showed off his bulky upper body. "We're starting SEC, so that's where my heads at right now, just getting focused on that first SEC matchup."

Auburn (1-1, 0-0 SEC) plays Mississippi State (1-1, 0-1) to open SEC play Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, and Fannin's role is expected to reflect that of Saturday night's overtime loss against South Florida.

He will share carries with sophomore running back Ben Tate, who also had 14 carries for 61 yards last week. Each brings a different style of running to an offense that's crying for a rushing game.

Tate is more of the side-stepping, quick back. Fannin just runs over people.

"Ben made a free safety miss once," running backs coach Eddie Gran said. "Mario will just run through you and around you."

Fannin and Tate are the only running backs left from a depleted arsenal at tailback. Starting tailback Brad Lester was suspended the Friday before the opener, and third-stringer Tristan Davis suffered a hairline fracture to his toe during preseason practice, causing Auburn's once loaded backfield to dwindle.

Auburn ranks last in the Southeastern Conference and 93rd in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 93.5 yards a game. The Tigers' total offense ranks 102nd in the nation.

But things are beginning to look up with the emergence of Fannin. Also, Davis is expected back in the next few weeks.

Lester is another case entirely. Tuberville suspended the junior running back because of lingering academic issues. The coach shakes his head and says little when asked about it.

That leaves the door open for Fannin, who was redshirted last season after suffering an early injury. After playing zero snaps in the season opener, he was relieved when he finally got that first carry on the third drive of Saturday's game.

He took the handoff from quarterback Brandon Cox and darted behind left tackle King Dunlap for 4 yards.

"It was a little nerve-wracking," Fannin said, "but, after that first carry, it was easy."

His second carry went for 8 more yards, and his ninth carry went for a touchdown as he plunged in from 4 yards out, prompting loud cheers from the 80,000-plus attending.

"It was amazing," he said, "all those fans screaming and your teammates behind you screaming. It was pretty loud. It's way different than high school scoring."

Fannin was ranked as the 23rd-best athlete prospect nationally by As a scrambling quarterback, he rushed and passed for more than 1,000 yards during his last two seasons at Lovejoy High.

Gran attributes both fumbles to Fannin's grip on the ball, calling it "sloppy."

"It's something that can be corrected," Gran said. "I would hope that next Saturday when he runs, it will be fixed."

Just a day after the game, Fannin already was chanting the words "high and tight" — the proper way to carry a football with the point directed toward the sky and the ball firmly pressed against the chest.

But Fannin's method of carrying the ball wasn't what kept him out of the season opener against Kansas State, when Auburn ran for a total of 62 rushing yards with Tate and fullback Carl Stewart.

Fannin was expected to play in that game, but coaches were weary of his pass-blocking skills. Along with running over defenders and "moving the pile," as Tuberville says, Fannin proved he could also block.

"I think he did a pretty good job," offensive coordinator Al Borges said. "It's nice to know we've got a kid who can do that type of thing. He's going to be a really, really good player. There's no doubt in my mind."

One of two sacks on Cox on Saturday night was the fault of Tate, who missed a stunting linebacker coming from the outside. Fannin had few mistakes, except, of course, for those two fumbles, which are now in his rear view mirror.

But that wasn't always the case. Fannin thought for a while that he would never see the playing field again this season after the two fumbles. He thought his chances were over. That changed.

"That was in my head during the game. Because that's a major thing, turning the ball over," he said.

"After the game, I was just making sure that I was able to gain (the coaches) trust still and be able to play. Coach Gran talked to me and said it's forgotten," Fannin said.

"I forgot about it also."

Mississippi State at Auburn

11:30 a.m.

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