Onterio McCalebb has never been the featured back at Auburn. He first backed up Ben Tate, and then Cam Newton and Michael Dyer. With Dyer's unfortunate departure, McCalebb may finally get his shot.
A lot of folks are looking to Tre Mason to carry the Tigers into the 2012 season, but it will be McCalebb that remains the X-factor.
McCalebb has been around a while and has given three solid seasons at Auburn. He is a quality, speedy running back and a dangerous weapon receiving out of the backfield.
In his freshman year, 2009, he earned the primary backup slot and racked up 565 yards with a 5.38 average. That is a higher average that Alabama's Trent Richardson had back in 2009 when he was a freshman as well.
2010 looked like it might be his breakout year, but true freshman Michael Dyer burst onto the scene and became the No. 1 back. Then, when Gus Malzahn realized what Cam Newton could do with his legs, McCalebb was reduced to fewer than seven carries per game. Those carries were good for an 8.53-yard average.
The Tigers lost Newton to the draft and Dyer remained the primary running back in 2011. McCalebb once again earned around 100 carries on the season, fewer than I had hoped. The running game wasn't the issue, however; it was the passing game.
With Kiehl Frazier not quite ready and Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley both struggling, someone needed to provide them with more weapons.
McCalebb did just that, and ended the season as the second-most productive receiver, behind Emory Blake and ahead of Philip Lutzenkirchen (which is German for "Touchdown Maker"—okay, that's made-up).
He hauled in 32 passes for 344 yards while maintaining a great 5.72-yards-per-rush average.
Clint Moseley showed flashes of great potential this year after Barrett Trotter was benched. He will be a junior next year and may become the quarterback this team needs—or it could be Kiehl Frazier. We'll have to wait until the fall to find out.
Either way, McCalebb will be a valuable asset in the passing game. He proved that this year. Although the Tigers won the national title in 2010, it's just too bad they didn't use McCalebb more back then. He only had seven receptions, but the Tigers had Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery out there catching passes.
Dyer is no longer with the Tigers, and McCalebb will have a chance to be the featured back. His size limits him as a pass-blocker, but his ability as a receiver will keep him valuable in the passing game.
It's not as if McCalebb's size will hold him back in the starting job competition. He's 5'10" and between 170 and 180 pounds. Tre Mason is the same height and weighs 190 pounds. Neither is exactly a bruiser.
It will come down to whoever can make the most plays. McCalebb has a career's worth of evidence that he is a playmaker. He's even done better than Mason on special teams with a 30.73 kickoff return average.
What really makes McCalebb a threat is his speed. Scout.com had him timed with a 4.35 40-yard dash in high school, and he said, "...my goal is to run a 4.2." On some plays, it looks like he's running a 3.9.
I look forward to seeing what McCalebb can do in 2012, and I hope the coaches give him enough opportunities to make more of an impact. He's already proven that he can. Now it's just a matter of feeding him the ball.
Head coach Gene Chizik could take some notes from Oregon coach Chip Kelly. He could do with McCalebb what Oregon did with LaMichael James and De'Anthony "Black Mamba" Thomas (who is almost physically identical to McCalebb).
McCalebb isn't just a gimmick player; he is a running back. Could he use some more weight? Sure, but you don't always need muscle to make a first down. His 109 yards rushing against Virginia on only 10 carries is more than enough evidence.
Onterio McCalebb is a playmaker. Let him make some plays.