Auburn, Ala.--Replacing the SEC’s leading rusher in 2014, Cameron Artis-Payne, has been the goal for the Auburn Tigers since taking the field in August for preseason camp, but with just a week left until the season opener against Louisville there is still a battle for the position between sophomores Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber as well as junior college transfer Jovon Robinson.
Since arriving at Auburn as first a coordinator, and then as head coach, Gus Malzahn has wanted to find one player to become the workhorse in the running game. That dates back to Ben Tate in 2009 before Cam Newton and Mike Dyer carried the load in 2010 and before Tre Mason two years ago and Artis-Payne last year.
Jovon Robinson joined the team in January after playing two seasons at Georgia Military College.
This time around it could be a different story, at least early on, with three backs expected to play a role in the offense early in the season. Malzahn said it’s something they’ve done before so the experience of facing that situation should help.
“I really feel a little like we did in 2013,” Malzahn said. “We have more information than we had in 2013, but we've got three guys that can do it. We'll see who kind of steps up, but we've got three that we think are pretty good.”
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee agreed with Malzahn and even included freshman Kerryon Johnson in the mix. With an offense that can use players in different ways, Lashlee said that means having the ability to see what each can bring to the table and how to work the offense around them.
“I feel good about them all,” Lashlee said. “Peyton and Roc are probably, just because they’ve got the most experience, but Jovon has been getting better. Kerryon is a young guy and he’s getting better.
“We’re going to need all four of them. We’re going to plan on playing them all and kind of see how that works itself out. We think they all do a lot of things well, some different than others. We feel good about them all.”
Peyton Barber has been strong in preseason camp for the Tigers
The player who may be in front of the line right now is Thomas. A player who shared snaps last season with Corey Grant in a backup role and getting some valuable playing time, Thomas is now bigger and stronger as he heads into his second season on the Plains. That’s something Lashlee said should help him in a number of different ways this year.
“Hopefully, having more weight will help keep him healthy through the season,” Lashlee said. “He’s not small, he’s over 200 pounds, 5-11, 200-something pounds is a good sized back. Some guys that run hard and violent and with a lot of cutting like him sometimes you’re more concerned about them with durability.
“I think that’s the number one thing we’re most excited about. We hope that will help keep him healthy. And two, it has probably given him confidence to be tougher. He’s been tough all fall camp. He’s been great in pass protection. He’s been great in short yardage situations. He’s really grown up so far in practice from where he was in the spring.”
Alabama’s Mr. Football last season, Johnson got off to a good start in preseason camp before getting banged up in an early scrimmage. Since that time he’s watched more than participated, but getting back on the field this week has Johnson in position to help the Tigers very early in the season.
“Before he exited for a little bit, he was doing really well mentally,” Lashlee said. “Already you felt like things were not too fast and it wasn't too much for him. He's entering back into getting reps, and it's more of the same.
Kerryon Johnson led Madison Academy to a state championship last season.
“He's doing a good job handling the mental part of it," Lashlee pointed out. "I think he did a good job getting mental reps when he wasn't getting physical reps. He's doing well. When he showed up, he already had the presence of 'he's someone who can help us this year.' As of right now, it's still our plan.”
With four possibilities and the likelihood of a rotation a strong possibility early in the season, the running back position may not clear up until well into the schedule. With Jacksonville State in week two following the opener against Louisville the Tigers could use that as another chance to see which guy is the right one for the job, but with LSU in week three Malzahn said ideally they would like someone to step up before going to Baton Rouge.
“I think that would be the plan that you would really like,” Malzahn said. “We're just going to let it happen. We're going to see how everything works out, but that would be nice.”
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