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Auburn place-kicker Wes Byrum’s 43-yard field goal with time running out sank the Florida Gators on their own field.
AP photo by Todd Van Emst
Auburn place-kicker Wes Byrum’s 43-yard field goal with time running out sank the Florida Gators on their own field.

AU adds
another weapon

After winning at Florida, Tigers get Lester back

By Ross Dellenger
sports@decaturdaily.com · 340-2462

AUBURN — The status of Auburn running back Brad Lester is no longer in doubt. He will play this weekend.

But coaches refused to reveal Sunday if Lester would start against Vanderbilt on Saturday, and they declined to disclose what Lester’s offensive role will be.

Auburn’s starting tailback entering the season, the junior will end a six-game suspension that dates back to January’s Cotton Bowl. The school never revealed all of the reasons for Lester’s suspension, but it involved academic issues that were apparently resolved Sept. 21.

Coaches and players alike welcome Lester’s return to a team that has just two healthy tailbacks on its roster, but his role is still uncertain. Lester is unavailable to reporters until Saturday.

“Brad will be in the mix very quick,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said Sunday, a day after Auburn’s 20-17 upset win at then-No. 4 Florida. “These guys need some help, some relief.”

Those “guys” Tuberville speaks of are Auburn’s only two running backs: sophomore Ben Tate (82 rushing yards a game) and redshirt freshman Mario Fannin (53 yards a game). Reserve running back Tristan Davis suffered a foot injury Saturday. He will have surgery Monday for the second time in fewer than two months.

Following a slow start to the year, Tate, who has replaced Lester as the starter and primary ball-carrier, and Fannin have had success lately, rushing for a combined 341 yards and five scores in the last two games.

When asked if Tate would remain the starter, Tuberville shifted the question to running backs coach Eddie Gran.

“That will be up to Eddie,” Tuberville said.

When Gran was asked if Lester would start, he said, “Don’t know that.”

Gran has been especially hard on Fannin and Tate, chastising them for costly fumbles. Fannin lost three fumbles in a span of five quarters during the second and third games of the season. Tate lost the ball against Florida, leading to a score by the Gators.

The 5-foot-11, 194-pound Lester fumbled just twice during the last two seasons, losing one.

Both Gran and offensive coordinator Al Borges said Lester’s big-play ability may be his strongest suit.

“The biggest thing is his touches-to-touchdown ratio is pretty good,” Gran said.

Said Borges: “Brad Lester, when he’s right, is worth a touchdown or two a game.”

Lester has 14 touchdowns in his two seasons. His nine scores in 2006 led the team, as he served as a backup to Kenny Irons.

Borges said Lester’s role in the offense will not be definitive until Tuesday, when this week’s game plan is concocted. Borges said he will not make it public.

“We’ll just work him in like we’ve worked all the backs in,” he said. “As we game-plan, it will be a little more definitive, but I won’t tell you.”

Lester served as Auburn’s secondary kickoff returner for the last two seasons, backing up the injury-plagued Davis. He averaged 37 yards a return.

Cornerback Pat Lee and Fannin have returned kicks in the absence of Lester and Davis, but Tuberville made it clear Sunday that Lester will replace Fannin as the returner alongside Lee.

Tuberville said he has no worries about Lester’s inexperience this season. The Lilburn, Ga., native has been splitting carries in practice with Tate and Fannin. Tuberville estimated that Lester has taken 25 percent of the carries with the first-stringers during the last two months.

“Brad will be ready to go,” Tuberville said. “He’s looking forward to it.

“It’s been a long six weeks for him, and he’s excited about playing.

Auburn Monday Playback

Three things Auburn should remember after a 20-17 win over Florida

  • Receivers can catch: Auburn receivers dropped three passes against New Mexico State but had zero drops in a 166-yard performance at Florida.

  • Cox can still zing it: The start to Brandon Cox’s season could not have gone worse: six interceptions in three games. He was benched during the fourth game, but won the job back last week and illustrated his accurate arm against Florida, completing his first five passes of the game. He finished 17-of-26 passing with no interceptions.

  • Young linemen survive in Swamp: The three true freshman starting on Auburn’s offensive line proved they can perform in one of the loudest venues in all of college athletics. Although Cox was sacked four times, the line opened running lanes and had only two penalties.

    Ross Dellenger

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