AUBURN, Ala. (AP) - Brad Lester did a lot of running in recent weeks. He ran before practices, and on lonely Saturday mornings when his teammates were gearing up for games.
Now that Lester is back making some of his runs on the football field, No. 22 Auburn's backfield actually looks like it was supposed to all along with him, Ben Tate and Mario Fannin taking turns pounding away at opposing defenses.
``We've got the luxury of taking a guy out of the bullpen and putting him into the game,'' coach Tommy Tuberville said Tuesday. ``They're all going to get their turns and their at-bats. I like the situation.
``I just wish we'd had this the entire year. I think we'd be in a different situation altogether.''
He at least has some evidence for that contention now, with Auburn little resembling the team that started 1-2 thanks largely to offensive struggles. With Lester returning from suspension, the Tigers (4-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) racked up a 6.1 yard average on 39 carries in a 35-7 win over Vanderbilt. That's nearly twice the 3.1-yard average in the first five games.
``Now, we've got a real good rotation going on so I think it is going to hurt a lot of teams in the future,'' said Lester, who had been suspended since the Cotton Bowl last season for academic reasons. He declined to reveal the reasons behind his suspension.
Lester had practiced with the team but did the extra workouts with strength coach Kevin Yoxall while he wasn't playing.
The running game had already made big strides since a dismal 62-yard performance in the opener against Kansas State with Tristan Davis out with a toe injury and Lester suspended. But Lester's return clearly opened up the offensive options for Auburn, even with Davis still out.
He, Tate and Fannin all got into the first series against Vandy, with Fannin making two catches out of the slot receiver position and the other two backs each getting multiple carries. The result? Tate's touchdown run.
The replenished backfield hardly has the credentials or name recognition of the backs who will be on the opposing sideline Saturday night at Arkansas, the Razorbacks' Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.
But Fannin thinks Auburn's trio does have some of the same blend of qualities.
``We've got a lot of speed and we have a lot of power,'' he said. ``That's something that they have. They're not going to be afraid to show it and we're not going to be afraid to show it.''
Running backs coach Eddie Gran reminded his players Tuesday that all the attention would be on their Arkansas counterparts leading up to the game.
``We need to give them something to be focused on us,'' Fannin said Gran told them. ``That's something we're going to try to do. The offensive line's going to open up the holes and we're going to run through them with speed and power.''
Maybe none of them will line up at quarterback like McFadden, but they have shown some versatility. Offensive coordinator Al Borges said the Tigers would continue to find ways to get Fannin on the field at receiver instead of just in the backfield, and Tate and Lester could line up at different spots too.
Tate and Lester played the same number of plays against Vandy, and Fannin wasn't far behind. They all had a similar number of carries.
Borges said he's not going to fret about keeping the chances evenly distributed. The simple mathematics of three backs, one ball makes that a chore.
``When you've got three backs you like, you always look back and say every game - and I'm not doing it anymore - 'well, we need to get the ball to this guy more,''' Borges said. ``You can't get it to everybody. It just can't be done, and run a good balanced offense.
``Somebody's going to be left with not as many carries as they'd like to have.''
Tuberville said the mix will often depend on the game plan, on whether the Tigers want to utilize Lester's quickness, Tate's inside running or Fannin's mixture of both qualities.
``That's going to give us a good opportunity to make this team better, knowing that we can set things around each one of them,'' he said.

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