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Running backs to play large role in Iron Bowl

Auburn's Kenny Irons was forced to watch last year's Iron Bowl from the stands. He figures to play a big role this time around.
Auburn's Kenny Irons was forced to watch last year's Iron Bowl from the stands. He figures to play a big role this time around.
Todd J. Van Emst, Associated Press

AUBURN, Ala. — Kenny Irons watched last season's Iron Bowl from the stands, wishing he could be out on the field. Kenneth Darby was on the field, wishing he was healthy.

The Iron Bowl's star tailbacks both get their wishes for Saturday's rivalry rematch. Auburn's Irons is the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher and Alabama's Darby is only 30 yards behind, the most consistent offensive weapons for their respective teams.

Irons sat out last season after transferring from South Carolina. Bothered by a lower abdominal injury, Darby had a painful 14 carries for 19 yards in a 21-13 loss to Auburn, a serious letdown for a guy who'd run for 200 yards two weeks earlier against Mississippi State.

"That hurt my heart. It really did," said Darby, adding that he was in pain the entire game. "It hurt my heart that we couldn't beat those guys. I really think we could have beat them if we had just been healthy. I felt I could have contributed so much to that game last year, and I couldn't do anything."

Neither could Irons.

"Just being in the stands, it was like, 'I can't wait to be a part of that. I want to be out there,' " he said.

Irons has rushed for a league-high 1,102 yards and 12 touchdowns despite averaging just 10.8 carries during Auburn's first five games. He's rushed for 100-plus yards in seven of his last eight games.

Darby has missed that mark only once in the Tide's past six games and has 1,072 yards, ranking third in average per game.

"The two best backs in the league," is the assessment of Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. "It'll be another thing to watch."

With Auburn starting a sophomore quarterback in Brandon Cox and Alabama's passing game struggling lately, both offenses rely heavily on their star backs.

Irons has had 30-plus carries three times in Auburn's last five games, proving a capable successor to current NFL backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Browns.

"He's a mix of Carnell and Ronnie," Tide linebacker Juwan Simpson said. "He can make you miss and he will run over you."

And he's been able to do both deep into games.

He ran 37 times for 179 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 31-30 win over Georgia. Against LSU, his 218 yards included a refuse-to-go-down, 74-yard TD run in the third quarter after appearing tackled in the backfield.

His workhorse duties are partly because of his effectiveness and partly out of necessity. Brad Lester, a one-time starter, is still hobbled by a groin injury this week and had only two carries against the Bulldogs.

Irons is the first Auburn runner with five consecutive 100-yard games since Rudi Johnson — now with the Cincinnati Bengals — in 2000.

"For the last three weeks, we keep saying we're going to put somebody else in there to take the pressure off, but it's hard to get him to come out," Tuberville said.

Darby is the fourth Alabama runner with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

"He's kind of like (Georgia's) Thomas Brown," Auburn linebacker Antarrious Williams said. "He can run over you and he can shake it and make you miss."

Physically, Darby couldn't do any of those things in last year's meeting. His injury was later diagnosed as a sports hernia, requiring surgery in the offseason.

"You could really see it early in the game," offensive coordinator Dave Rader said. "We tried to run a little quick screen to the wide receiver and he was supposed to block a linebacker and he just couldn't get there. He just wasn't right."

Irons and Darby are similar, slashing, make-you-miss backs. Both are 5-foot-11 and about 200 pounds.

But their most common trait — besides their first names — may be a boundless, talkative energy.

Even after a long practice, Darby couldn't contain himself Tuesday night talking about getting another crack at Auburn.

"I'm trying to keep a cool head now," he said in a rapid-fire stream. "I've got an adrenaline rush. I'm going into this game basically just to have fun, win. I didn't have fun last year at all. I was in pain the whole time.

"I'm just ecstatic. I'm ready to play."

Irons will talk to anybody from opposing players to officials in a constant on-the-field banter.

"He's trying to hug them. He'll say, 'Come on, give me a hug. I know you want to give me a hug,"' Auburn receiver Courtney Taylor said. "It's hilarious. That's a Kenny thing."