AUBURN, Ala. (AP) — Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb are no longer supporting actors on the Cam Newton Show.
The two tailbacks for No. 23 Auburn were often overshadowed by the prolific, flashy Newton last season despite putting up strong numbers. Now, they might just be the Tigers’ primary weapons starting with Saturday’s visit from Utah State.
The solid 1-2 punch comprises one of only three Football Bowl Subdivision returning tandems that ran for 700-plus yards each last season. More importantly, they’re proven playmakers on an offense with few of them.
“They’re two great backs,” said quarterback Barrett Trotter, who is replacing the Heisman Trophy winner Newton. “They proved what they can do last year. It’s going to be even moreso this year with the number of touches they’re going to get and the yards they’re going to be able to have.”
Both Dyer and McCalebb were certainly effective last season, but they were practically workmanlike figures while Newton’s dazzling runs dominated the highlights.
The biggest surprise might be that McCalebb is slotted to start ahead of a player who was the BCS national championship game’s offensive MVP as a freshman. Coach Gene Chizik has said Dyer was slowed during practice early in preseason camp by an undisclosed injury.
As for the decision on a starter, he said: “I wouldn’t read anything into that.”
Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez and Rex Burkhead and Wisconsin’s combo of James White and Montee Ball were the only other backfield duos to top 700 yards last season. A school known for running backs like Bo Jackson, Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, Auburn has never had two returnees who ran for 800 yards the previous season.
Dyer ran for a school freshman record 1,093 yards while McCalebb gained 810.
Of course, Newton stole some of their thunder by leading the Southeastern Conference in rushing en route to the Heisman Trophy.
McCalebb and Dyer present defenses with very different styles.
McCalebb is a slender speedster who said he reported to fall camp at 180 pounds, some 20 heavier than when he arrived two years ago, and is hoping to be a better inside-the-tackles runner as a result. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said coaches are trying to nurture him into an every down back.
Dyer thinks the mission was accomplished.
“He’s gotten a lot more physical on his inside runs,” he said of his backfield mate. “He’s capable of going in the middle more than normally. But he’s doing everything that he couldn’t do last year and he’s bringing it this year and putting it out there for us. He’s trying to do it all for us.”
McCalebb said the extra pounds haven’t made him any slower.
“It’s not like a challenge for me to keep my speed,” he said early in camp. “My speed ain’t going nowhere. The only thing it can do is go faster. But it’s kind of hard being out there maintaining weight.”
He set Auburn’s single-season record with an 8.5-yard average per carry last season and nine touchdowns, including a 70-yarder against LSU. He also had a 99-yard kick return against Arkansas.
Dyer gained national attention with his start-stop-start 37-yard run — and subsequent 16-yarder — to set up the winning field goal against Oregon in the national title game.
Whatever his camp injury, Dyer said he’s 100 percent now.
The 5-foot-9, 207-pounder, who arrived on campus as one of the nation’s most highly rated running backs, is the muscle to McCalebb’s speed. Only six of his 182 carries went for negative yardage, a total loss of 13 yards.
When Mississippi put the clamps on Newton’s running, Dyer churned out 180 yards. He added 143 on 22 carries against Oregon.
He thinks he has gotten better since then.
“I definitely feel more comfortable,” Dyer said. “I think I know more about the offense and so many things that I didn’t know last year. I think I’m more calm when seeing the holes and reading and stuff like that. I just feel like my mindset is more mature than it was last year.”
Perhaps the way he’s handled being behind McCalebb on the depth chart is indicative of that.
“We feel like we can both do the job and should get it done when we’re out there,” Dyer said.