AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -Brad Lester is back in a familiar role: Auburn's backup tailback.
The main point for both the Tigers and Lester, who was projected to be the starter, is that he is back. The junior returns from a six-game suspension for academic issues Saturday against Vanderbilt, supplying instant speed, experience and depth to a backfield that could use a dash of each of those qualities.
Coach Tommy Tuberville said Lester will play but won't start and will have to work his way past Ben Tate and Mario Fannin on the depth chart.
``He's going to have to earn his way back,'' Tuberville said Tuesday. ``He will be there because he's done a lot of it before, but we need to ease him in and let him know he'll be playing a spot role for us the first couple of games.''
Whatever his role, Auburn (3-2, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) is happy to have Lester back. He was viewed as the starting tailback before the season, but his suspension from the Cotton Bowl carried over well into this season.
Lester, who wasn't made available for interviews this week, ran for 849 yards and 14 touchdowns the past two seasons behind Kenny Irons. Without him and an injured Tristan Davis, the inexperienced Tate and the redshirt freshman Fannin were forced to carry the load for a running game that ranks eighth in the SEC. With Lester, they finally have depth.
``It will be hard for teams to prepare for us because they'll always have a fresh back coming at them,'' said Tate, whose 410 yards leads the team. ``We won't have to worry about getting tired. Well always have fresh legs.''
But they'll also have extra competition for carries. Tate has run the ball 41 times the past two games and Fannin 28.
``You know there's another back out there, so your chances get cut down a little more,'' Tate said. ``That makes you more hungry. You want to make a play every time. That will make you run harder. That will help us out tremendously.''
Even though the Tigers indicated they plan to ease the 5-foot-11, 194-pound Lester back into action, he has been able to practice during the suspension.
So he's at least close to playing shape. But, Tuberville said, ``The other two guys have put a lot into the first five games. They've made a lot of progress.''
In fact, he said the backs' pass protection in Saturday's 20-17 win at No. 9 Florida represented ``one of the biggest improvements we've had in the entire offense.''
But Lester remains the team's most experienced tailback, with three career starts and a solid average of 5.2 yards per carry.
``He's going to add a lot of speed back there,'' Fannin said. ``Brad's a real quick guy. It's going to help us out a lot. We're happy that he's back, and he's happy that he's back. He just can't wait to get out there and play.''
Notes: Tuberville said defensive end Quentin Groves was scheduled for X-rays on three dislocated toes Tuesday, and didn't have his prognosis. Antonio Coleman is expected to replace him against Vandy. ... Linebacker Merrill Johnson practiced some Tuesday after missing the last three games with a shoulder injury.

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