Crowded backfield a strength for Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s never easy to replace the SEC’s leading rusher, but Auburn doesn’t have just one guy to replace Tre Mason. It has five.

“We have some really good cards,” running backs coach Tim Horton said. “When you’re playing cards, it’s nice to have some good ones to play, and we’ve got some good players. Now it’s just our jobs to figure out how to use these cards we have.”

As expected, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant have distanced themselves from the rest of the pack in the Tigers’ backfield hierarchy. The two have been around the longest and they know the offense, so when the time comes for Gus Malzahn to name a starter, expect one of the two seniors’ names to be called.

However, that doesn’t mean you can just write off the freshman trio. Regardless of whether or not they start, Peyton Barber, Racean Thomas and Kamryn Pettway are all capable of contributing right away.

“I think all three of them are talented,” Malzahn told reporters Saturday. “And that’s the main thing. You’ve got to ask yourself, ‘Are you talented enough to play?’ If they’re talented enough to play, then (come) all the little things. Who’s coachable? Who will protect that football? That’s what’s on my mind. Who’s going to protect the football, especially being young?

“Hopefully, we’ll give them enough chances during fall camp to show who can do that, who can execute our offense and who we can count on.”

Barber is a year ahead of the other two after redshirting last season. He turned heads this spring and was primed for a breakout performance at A-day, but a foot injury on his first carry forced him to miss the rest of the game. A missed opportunity, no doubt, but he’s back now and ready to compete.

Thomas arrived this summer, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s handled himself through the first week and a half of fall camp.

“He’s done well,” Horton said. “The thing that’s really been impressive is his knowledge of the game. He’s really a good learner and has made very few mental mistakes.

“We’ve put him in scrimmages and walked away. I think sometimes you can get up there and coach them every play, whisper every play, and we haven’t done that. We’ve thrown him in the fire, and he’s done really well with that.”

Of the three freshmen, Thomas was the most highly regarded coming out of high school. He was ranked No. 28 overall in the 2014 ESPN 300 and was named Mr. Football in the state of Alabama. When it came time to talk goals with Malzahn, the Auburn coach went as far as to say he wants to get Thomas a Heisman Trophy before he leaves Auburn.

“I’m just trying to learn a lot,” Thomas said in April. “I want to get in the system and be a dynamic playmaker.”

Pettway, the other incoming freshman, might not be as decorated as Thomas, but he’s impressed the coaching staff to this point and also has an opportunity to be in the mix.

As Horton alluded to earlier, it’s now time for the coaches to figure out how to best use this talented group of running backs. Who starts? Who plays? How do you get all five backs involved?

“It’s a great problem,” Horton said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to understand, and unfortunately I’m old enough to have had this happen to me, is you have five guys that you think are really good and next thing you know, two of them are out for the season, one of them is out with a hamstring for two weeks and you’re down to two.

“You better have depth in this league because I do know this: Those guys are going to get hit.”

Auburn will likely name a starter in the coming weeks, but this backfield isn’t strong because of just one running back. It’s strong because of all five backs, freshmen included, and all five need to be ready in case the coaches decide to play their card.