This is the first in a series of position previews for the 2015 Auburn football team.
Lots To Replace
Auburn loses a ton of production with Artis-Payne and Grant both giving it a shot to pay in the NFL this year. Following on the heels of Tre Mason’s huge 2013, Artis-Payne picked up where Mason left off with a big senior season.
Carrying the ball 303 times for 1,608 yards and 13 touchdowns, Artis-Payne proved to be the workhorse that Auburn was looking for at the running back position. Add in Grant’s 364 yards and three touchdowns and you have nearly 2,000 yards to replace at the position. With Nick Marshall’s production included the Tigers lost 84 percent of their rushing yards from a year ago.
With Roc Thomas, Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson and incoming freshman Kerryon Johnson all vying for playing time when the Tigers hit the field for preseason practice in August, Coach Tim Horton will have plenty of options at his disposal at the position.
Getting limited work last fall as a true freshman, Thomas carried the ball 43 times for 214 yards and a pair of scores, but a lack of consistency kept him from making more of a run at Artis-Payne’s job. Now more physical and in his second year in the offense and 10 pounds heavier at 5-10, 203, Thomas should be more prepared to be the all-around runner it takes to be the main man for the Tigers.
Injured in last spring’s A-Day game, Barber never made a move last fall and only got 10 carries for the year as a redshirt freshman. Back to full speed this spring, he made plenty of noise with his combination of size and speed. At 225 pounds, Barber has the ability to run through tackles at the line of scrimmage and can also make people miss in space.
Peyton Barber dives for yardage against Louisiana Tech.
Coming to Auburn in the spring, Robinson is the total package of size, speed and power. Getting a head start on his career with the Tigers, the juco standout went through spring practice and that gives him a much better shot of winning the job this fall. Determined to be on the field and win the job, Robinson’s preseason will go a long way towards how much impact he can make.
The same is true of Johnson. Getting to Auburn in time for the first summer session, Alabama’s Mr. Football should have plenty of time under strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell’s guidance to add more muscle before he steps on the field this fall. A dynamic playmaker who can be used in a number of different ways, Johnson’s role this fall may be more as a speed back in the slot with the occasional carry at tailback.
Horton is upbeat about the group's possibilities. "It is a very competitive situation," the running backs coach says. "I think it will be a position of strength for us."
This one isn’t likely going to be settled until well into the season, if at all. With plenty of options and players that all have different types of skills at the position the Tigers could have a true running back-by-committee for the first time in several years with each having the chance to win the job. With Jeremy Johnson’s ability to throw the ball and Duke Williams, Ricardo Louis and a talented receiver corps outside, Thomas could be a huge big-play threat for the Tigers and make him a really good fit in 2015.
With Barber and Robinson both having the ability to grind out the yards while also picking up chunk yardage, this battle could be one of the most hard-fought on the team this fall. In the end Auburn will likely find a true go-to back to be the guy in the running game, but it just may take a little longer this season.
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