The SEC is full of intriguing position battles this spring, but one that might not be getting as much attention is taking place at Auburn where three, soon to be four, players are competing to become the next 1,000-yard rusher in Gus Malzahn’s offense.
Is it too early to predict 1,000 yards for Auburn’s running back when the job is still up for grabs? Not when you consider that Malzahn has had a 1,000-yard rusher every year he’s coached at the college level, dating to 2006. And if recent history is any indication, we won’t know who the featured back is until the first week of the season or later.
Two years ago, Tre Mason split carries the first three games before emerging as the go-to back. He then went on to lead the SEC in rushing, earning himself an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
There is no Tre Mason this spring. There is no Cameron Artis-Payne, who led the SEC in rushing this past season. The most experienced back on Auburn’s roster is a sophomore-to-be who has a grand total of 43 carries in his career. But the coaching staff isn’t worried. The coaches are excited about the potential of this year’s backfield.
"Minus experience, we’ve got some guys that we are really excited about," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "They’re young, they’re hungry, they’re talented, they’re working hard, they’re unselfish guys, and I think they’re guys that if someone emerges great but if it’s a by-committee deal, then we feel like we’ve got a bunch of talented guys we can count on."
"It’s going to be exciting to watch how those guys progress and develop."
Roc Thomas: The most "experienced" player in Auburn’s backfield, Thomas had 43 carries for 214 yards and two touchdowns in his first season with the Tigers. The former ESPN 300 star had high expectations when he arrived on campus, and they are even higher now with the starting gig at stake. From a talent standpoint, he has the potential to be in the same conversation as fellow SEC sophomores Nick Chubb, Leonard Fournette and Jalen Hurd. But it’s also about opportunity and taking advantage of that opportunity.
Peyton Barber: It’s starting to feel like Barber will also be the dark-horse candidate at Auburn. After redshirting as a freshman in 2012, he turned heads last spring with an impressive month of practice. But just when it looked like he was primed for a breakout at A-Day, he injured his ankle on the first carry and missed the remainder of the spring game. It set him back, and now, after seeing just 10 carries last season, he’s facing an uphill battle in the competition. The coaches like Barber, but will he ever get a shot as the featured back at Auburn?
Jovon Robinson: Can a junior college transfer really come in and win the starting job his first season on campus? Just ask D'haquille Williams. He started opposite Sammie Coates from Day 1 and became one of the SEC’s top wide receivers. Like Williams, Robinson was the No. 1 player in the ESPN JC50, and the expectations are just as high. He already scored a touchdown in his first practice this spring, and many believe he’s the early favorite to start. Listed at 6-feet, 235 pounds, Robinson will have no problem shouldering the load.
Kerryon Johnson: As the only running back not yet on campus, Johnson is already at a slight disadvantage. He’ll be busy finding a prom date while the others go through spring practice. But don’t underestimate the five-star recruit. He has the talent and versatility to make an early impact, and the coaches would be wise to find ways to get him on the field and get the ball in his hands. If you’re not convinced, just know that Lashlee already mentioned Johnson’s name when asked about the running back position.