News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

AU's Lester makes bid for starting job

By Ross Dellenger 340-2460

AUBURN — After a brief discussion with reporters Sunday, Brad Lester slung his black laptop bag over his shoulder and pulled on his Auburn backpack.

"Off to study hall," the running back said with a smile as he walked out of Auburn's athletic complex.

Making just his second public statements in more than a month, Lester refused to elaborate on the reasons for his six-game suspension, though coach Tommy Tuberville cited "lingering academic issues" — hence the trip to study hall.

The suspension began during January's Cotton Bowl and ended Saturday against Vanderbilt, when Lester ran for 77 yards and scored two touchdowns, while splitting carries with starter Ben Tate and backup Mario Fannin.

Lester will begin an attempt to win his starting job back this weekend when Auburn (4-2, 2-1 SEC) visits Arkansas (3-2, 0-2).

As a redshirt freshman in 2005, Lester stole the starting job away from Kenny Irons before a trip to Arkansas that season. During that game, he tore his groin — an injury that sidelined him for the next three weeks.

"I've always wanted to go back there and play again, especially after that year," Lester said. "I guess I've got to get my starting job back ... again."

Lester will have to win the starting role from Tate, a sophomore who is averaging a team-leading 84 rushing yards a game and has scored four touchdowns.

Lester said he and Tate took the same number of snaps Saturday against Vanderbilt, while Fannin "had a little bit less." But it was Lester who garnered the most carries with 13. Fannin followed with 11, and Tate had just nine, but he doesn't mind.

"I really like the rotation we have going at running back," Tate said following the game. "It's really fun to do it like that."

Running backs coach Eddie Gran agreed, citing better play from the running backs, who all graded in the high 90s in the coaches' evaluations. When Gran was asked how he distributes the carries to the running backs, he said, "I don't. It happens on Saturday."

Gran later said he goes by feel when deciding which running back to play during a given snap. In one case Saturday, Lester took himself out of the game — something Gran enjoyed seeing.

"I said, 'Brad, why are you out?' and he said, 'Coach, I just need a break.' He said, 'I'm going back in, in two plays,' " Gran said.

Gran likes to see that. He said the main priority is to have a fresh-legged running back in the game at all times.

"If you make a block, and you can't get up and sprint 20 yards because our receiver catches a hitch and breaks a tackle, then we're not playing championship speed," Gran said, shedding some light on Auburn's tradition of playing two or three running backs at a time.

In 2003, the Tigers used three alternating tailbacks who are now all in the NFL: Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown and Brandon Jacobs. They combined for 2,199 yards on 409 carries that year.

Auburn's current trio racked up 227 rushing yards against Vanderbilt and scored four touchdowns.

Lester, who has played in 23 games and started three, has not gained 100 yards rushing in a single collegiate game. His closest was a 94-yard performance against Florida last season. But, like Tate, he's enjoying Auburn's rotation at tailback, even if he isn't starting.

"Now we've got a real good rotation going on," he said, "so I think it is going to hurt a lot of teams in the future."

Auburn's expected starting tailback, Lester was told of the second wave of his suspension just two days before the season-opener against Kansas State. Since then, the 5-foot-11, 194-pounder has been through a living hell.

A Lilburn, Ga., native, Lester never got a day off over the past month, even on Mondays, Auburn's tradition weekly respite.

"I was up here when nobody else was up here," said Lester, who noted that he thought "everything was fair" about his suspension.

While he sat out, Lester heard the rumors circulating: He will never play again this season. He won't ever meet eligibility requirements.

The questions spread: Is he's going to transfer? Is his Auburn career finished?

"It didn't bother me because I knew I wasn't going anywhere," Lester said. "You have to learn to deal with adversity, and I think I've done that over the last year."

Lester said he knew he would return this season. The question was when.

The night before Auburn played New Mexico State, as he was loading onto the team bus for the trip to West Point, Ga. — where Auburn stays on Friday nights before home games — Lester was told the good news: You'll be back for Vanderbilt, but don't expect to start.

Auburn Monday playback

Three things Auburn should remember after a 35-7 win over Vanderbilt.

You can run again: The trio of running backs Brad Lester, Mario Fannin and Ben Tate compiled 227 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Auburn's restructured offensive line opened massive holes for the third straight game.

Rest is good: Auburn benched nearly all of its starters during the fourth quarter of Saturday's game. That may come into play in the final quarter of this week's game at Arkansas.

Despite injuries, defense still dominates: Without two starting linebackers, a starting safety and a starting defensive end, the Tigers' first unit pitched a shutout. They allowed just 109 total yards in the first three quarters.

Ross Dellenger

Auburn at Arkansas

6:45 p.m.

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