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Mario Fannin finding time at other positions for AU

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

AUBURN — Mario Fannin finds himself in Auburn's backfield seldom these days. But he seems to be everywhere else.

Brad Lester's return from suspension and Ben Tate's impressive running have left Fannin out of a crowded tailback position, but coaches gave the redshirt freshman a promise about a month ago when his carries began diminishing.

"The coaches said they would try to get me the ball," the 5-foot-11, 220-pounder said.

They have done just that.

Fannin has been split out at wide receiver or tucked a few feet away from the tight end at the slot position.

He has been designated as Auburn's end-around man. Twice against Ole Miss, Fannin, aligned at receiver, raced into the backfield and took a handoff. He blew by the Rebels' defense for chunks of yards.

Although he's not lining up behind the fullback, Fannin is finding success in other places.

"When it's my time, it'll be my time to play at the tailback position," said Fannin, who leads the team with 812 all-purpose yards.

Offensive coordinator Al Borges said entering the season, the idea was to use Fannin in the same way Auburn used versatile back Ronnie Brown in 2004, but that plan was temporarily scratched. Because of Lester's suspension, Fannin was needed full-time as a tailback during the first five games of the season.

Lester's return about a month ago meant it was time to reinstall the "Ronnie Brown package" — a group of plays — for Fannin, who was a four-star prospect out Georgia's Lovejoy High in 2006.

Each week, Fannin has a package installed for him, and each week, if he executes the plays successfully, that package broadens for the next week.

"The better you do, the more we expand the package," Borges said.

In 2004, Brown was competing in the backfield with tailback Carnell Williams, forcing Borges to play the talented Brown at other positions in order to use his skills.

As Lester and Tate get the bulk of carries, Borges is doing the same with Fannin.

Fannin had trouble in the beginning with learning everything. Borges blames himself for "saturating" the 19-year-old. But now, Fannin said, things are beginning to click.

"I'm learning it daily," he said. "The more I learn, the better off I'll be in terms of playing time."

And he should see plenty of that Saturday when No. 19 Auburn (6-3, 4-2 SEC) hosts Tennessee Tech. With Lester being held out to protect a sore groin, Fannin could return to his old role of tailback alongside Tate.

But Fannin is enjoying this new role.

He said he likes the opportunity coaches are giving him to play different positions. It may help him down the road.

"It proves that I'm more versatile. It's not just running the ball — I can also catch," Fannin said. "That's something a lot of people look for."

Fannin said he continues to work with the tailbacks at practice but occasionally visits with the receivers to learn routes. Rod Smith, the team's leading receiver, called Fannin "a tough cat" with "good hands."

This isn't the first time Fannin has worked with the receivers. Upon coming to Auburn last August, Fannin started out as a receiver. Now, he finds himself right back there ... and everywhere else.

"Right now," Fannin said, "I'm just contributing in the best way I can."

Tennessee Tech (4-5) at No. 19 Auburn (6-3)

When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.

Where: Pat Dye Field at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn.

Line: No line because Tennessee Tech is from the Football Championship Subdivision — formerly Division I-AA.

TV/radio: The game will not be televised. The radio broadcast can be heard on FM-106.1, FM-95.9, FM-98.3 and AM-1230.

Players to watch: True freshman quarterback Kodi Burn should see playing time. Offensive coordinator Al Borges said earlier this week that Burns will do more than just run the ball if he enters Saturdayís game. With Brad Lester not playing because of a lingering groin problem, look for running back Mario Fannin to get plenty of carries. As redshirt freshmen, Fannin and Burns are likely the future of Auburn.

Tennessee Tech runs a wishbone triple-option attack. Running back Derek White averages 116 rushing yards a game and is third in school history with 2,809 career yards on the ground.

Key matchup: The only serious threat Tennessee Tech poses comes on special teams. The Golden Eagles have returned four kickoffs for touchdowns this season. Larry Shipp averages 31 yards a return. Auburnís kickoff coverage team has struggled.

Weather: Sunny, a high of 74 degrees and a low of 43. No chance of rain.

Last meeting: First meeting between the two.

Prediction: Auburn 45, Tennessee Tech 7.

Ross Dellenger, DAILY sports writer

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