AUBURN, Ala. -- When Roc Thomas dropped that swing pass on the first play of the Iron Bowl last year, he was mad. Here he was, a freshman starting the biggest game of the season, and on Auburn’s first play, he dropped a ball on what turned out to be a backward pass. The result was a fumble recovered by Alabama.
But Thomas stayed positive. He encouraged his teammates the rest of the way, just like they encouraged him after the fumble. He stayed positive, even though he didn’t see the field again in that game or the Tigers’ ensuing bowl game.
This past Saturday, his attitude and patience finally paid off.
It was Auburn’s annual spring game, and on his first carry of the day, Thomas went for 36 yards and a touchdown. He nearly tripped on the play, but he stayed on his feet, made a little stutter-step move to the outside, broke a tackle and, once he got the edge, there was no catching him -- at least not with quarterback Jeremy Johnson paving the way.
“It felt really good,” Thomas said after the game. “It wasn’t designed to go that way, but I got a hole, and I started running. I saw Jeremy running in front of me, and I figured he was going to block, so I felt like I could beat the defender.”
The touchdown run was the highlight for Thomas on what was a solid day overall. The sophomore back, who only played the first half, led Auburn with 69 yards rushing. He added another score with the second-team offense, and he also caught a pass for 12 yards.
“Roc made a couple spin moves and came out of some things that were really nice,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “All three of our running backs, they’re very good with the ball in their hands. All three of them made some good runs.”
Malzahn was quick to point out fellow backs Jovon Robinson and Peyton Barber, to make sure they didn’t get left out because it is a competition, after all. Robinson rushed for 19 yards in his much anticipated debut with the Tigers, and Barber, who got the most work Saturday, finished with 46 yards on the ground.
But the day belonged to Thomas. His shiftiness and burst were on full display, and he also showed off an added element of strength, a part of his game that has improved after he gained 10 pounds this offseason. It was a perfect way to wrap up spring practice.
“I feel pretty good about my spring,” Thomas said. “I think I’m getting a lot more comfortable in the offense, and I think everything is just starting to click.”
But that doesn’t mean Thomas is Auburn’s new starting running back. Not yet.
The coaches expect the competition to go into fall camp and possibly even into the season. It took Tre Mason four games before he became the lead back in 2013. Last year, Cameron Artis-Payne might have gotten the bulk of the carries in Auburn’s first game, but he and Corey Grant battled all through spring and into August.
“It’s interesting how it’s all played out over the course of the last two years,” Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said. “Going into it both years, I didn’t know that we’d have one that really took the bulk of the time.
“This year, I’m thinking we could legitimately play three running backs. We’ll see how it all plays out, what cream rises to the top, but I know I have confidence in all three of those guys.”
That trio might turn into a quartet by the time Auburn plays its first game. Five-star signee Kerryon Johnson arrives this summer, and he’s expected to join the competition at running back.
Thomas isn’t fazed, though. He knows he could be splitting carries, especially early on, and he’s OK with that. His goal is to win a national championship.
“I’m all for it,” Thomas said. “Whatever works best and whatever helps the team best. I know if one of us ends up getting a lot of carries, that’s a lot of mileage on one person. Three people running the ball, and it’s evenly split? I think that will hurt defenses.”
Regardless of how it shakes out, Saturday’s performance certainly didn’t hurt Thomas.