Auburn, Ala.--With Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Nick Marshall having moved on to try their hand at professional football, gone are 2,770 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns for the Auburn Tigers to have to replace next season. That starts in spring practice with a trio of running backs fighting to be the next guy in line for Coach Gus Malzahn’s attack.
With Tre Mason’s back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and Artis-Payne’s big year still fresh on everyone’s mind, sophomores Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber as well as junior college transfer Jovon Robinson have just started to battle for the right to be called the No. 1 back for the Tigers. While the race is just starting to heat up with just three practices under their belt, Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said he’s expecting it to be a fun spring.
“Peyton and Roc are guys that we're familiar with,” Lashlee said. “You look at Peyton, now he's starting his third year with us, coming off a redshirt last year, and then you've got Roc starting his second year. I think Roc has gained about 10 or 12 pounds. He is looking a lot thicker, looks just as quick and fast, so it's good to get a look at those two guys, and then, other than those two guys, it's good for Jovon.
“That is something that will be interesting to see all spring, how those guys do. Until you get live bullets and see, how are they going to hold onto the ball, how are they running, making guys miss, protections, that is what really matters.”
Peyton Barber is a talented and physical back who is preparing for his third fall on the AU team.
For Thomas this spring is about taking the next step in the learning process after some ups and plenty of downs last year. Carrying the ball 43 times for 214 yards and two touchdowns, the five-star back showed some glimpses of being a very good player for the Tigers, but it wasn’t without some mistakes along the way, including a fumble on the opening play of the Iron Bowl.
Along the way Thomas noted for him it was a chance to see how life in the SEC works and that meant watching and learning from a pair of seniors every step of the way. Now up 10 pounds to 205 and quicker than ever, he said everything he went through last season should help him now that he’s got a shot to be the starter.
"I learned a lot,” Thomas said. “In the meeting rooms they're like the first ones to answer questions so I'm learning from them and I'm picking up a lot of things from them. They helped me a out a lot because I was the one sitting back and just watching everything, trying to take everything in, not being the first one to step up and do stuff. I was just watching them and learning a lot."
Barber’s road has been even more frustrating with two seasons of spending much of his time on the practice squad, one as a redshirt and another that saw him carry the ball just 10 total times. With a pair of five-star backs to challenge in the backfield race and sometimes the forgotten man, Barber said for him it’s just more fuel for his already burning fire to be the best.
“I’m pretty much used to it to be honest,” Barber said. “I’ve always kind of been considered the underdog so I’m pretty used to it. It’s nothing new.
“I kind of like it to be honest,” he added. “Pretty much that way if you mess up they pretty much are already counting you out. But at the same time, I didn’t come here to sit on the bench. I came here to play.”
Jovon Robinson spent the past two seasons at Georgia Military College.
That is the goal for Robinson as well. Physically gifted with all the tools to be successful right away for the Tigers, he is on track to be able to help early in the fall for the Auburn offense. Just how quickly Robinson can make an impact remains to be seen, but Lashlee said the talent is definitely there.
“When he's just grabbing the ball and playing, he's doing well,” Lashlee said. “It's just going to take time as far as the way we practice, the protections to knowing all the plays and where to line up, because we go faster than he's ever gone before so in that regard he has got a ways to go, but physically he's ready to go and he will have an opportunity because when he is just running and playing, he's pretty talented.”