Roc Thomas (above) will be a junior this season.
Auburn, Ala.--With one running back recovering from offseason surgery and another who left early to enter the NFL Draft, the Auburn football team entered spring practice with concerns about depth at the position.
As the Tigers head into Saturday's A-Day Game a shortage of ball carriers has not been an issue for the offense, according to Tim Horton.
The running backs coach noted that senior Jovon Robinson and junior Roc Thomas are having a good competition this spring to be the main man at tailback while newcomer Malik Miller is adjusting to college football.
Kerryon Johnson, who played last fall as a true freshman, is watching practice while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. A running back Horton said he really likes, Johnson is expected to be back in action this preseason.
Peyton Barber, who was the main ball carrier much of last season, will be trying to make an NFL roster this year. Horton noted that both Robinson and Thomas are making strong pushes this spring to enter the 2016 season No. 1 on the depth chart.
Jovon Robinson runs the football in a spring practice drill.
“I think if there is one guy that’s head and shoulders above everybody then you’ve got a starter and here’s our guy, and I’ve had some guys throughout my career that have been that guy,” said Horton. “Generally speaking, and particularly since I’ve been at Auburn, there’s been really good competition and that’s the case without question this year.”
Horton contends that there are “legitimately five guys that could start” at the tailback position, including fullbacks Chandler Cox and Kamryn Pettway, who have both gotten reps at tailback this spring.
“To be honest they have both stood out,” Horton said after being asked about Cox and Pettway’s performances at tailback this spring.
“They are our fullbacks, and they are going to start at fullback, Horton said of the sophomores. “At the same time if we get in a pickle, we’ve got some really good fullbacks that can play tailback. They can help us win. They love it. They haven’t gotten to carry the ball a whole lot as fullbacks. They’re liking it.”
Chandler Cox is a true sophomore from Apopka, Fla., who saw significant playing time last fall.
Robinson came on strong at the end of last season, including rushing for a career-high 159 yards on 27 carries in the win at Texas A&M after not playing part of the season, partly due to a lingering ankle injury. Now the Memphis native will look to show what he can do in a year where he stays healthy.
“He’s maturing,” said Horton. “I think the thing that maybe shocked Jovon when he first got here is the demands, the work ethic, the attention to detail, the requirements of being a great football player. I think he’s really starting to grow and evolve and do all those little things that can help him accomplish the goals that he’s got for himself.”
Thomas also went through injury issues causing him to be passed on the depth chart last season, but that hasn’t stopped him from working hard in practice and the weight room to try and earn his spot back.
“I think for both (Roc and Jovon), they’re a lot more mature now than they were a year ago,” Horton pointed out. “They both had really good winter conditioning programs. I don’t think they are so concerned about themselves as they are of the team. I think you’re seeing someone that’s maybe a better teammate.
“They have been good encouragers, and they have both been productive,” the coach pointed out. “Roc had a long touchdown reception the other day. Jovon had a really good series and had a nice, long run in that series. I’ve been pleased with both of them.”
Johnson has been watching from the sidelines after seeing significant playing time last fall as a true freshman. Horton says the injury should only be a temporary setback for the sophomore.
“No one is more disappointed in (being sidelined) than K.J.,” Horton said. “K.J. has been a pro since the day he got here. He is very, very conscientious, he has got a great work ethic, he has been a great student of the game, he is a good teammate--all of those things that you look for from anyone.
“I know it’s been really frustrating for him to have to stand over there on the sidelines. He has been a great player-coach, and he’s been a real good mentor to this point for Malik. I think once he gets healthy, and once we can get him in the weight room again, he has got a chance to be a terrific player.”
The newcomer to the roster, Miller has shown flashes of what he can bring to the team, but Horton pointed out that he needs to be more consistent and has “a lot of improving to do” to be game ready.
Malik Miller is an early arrival who played at Madison Academy last fall.
“We’ve been very pleased with Malik,” Horton said. “Obviously, he is a high school senior right now and should be getting ready for the prom instead of football practice today. Saturday he probably led our team in rushing. He had a lot of yards after contact which is what we call ‘bull yards.’ He’s still got some things to learn.
“He has really done a good job of picking up the offense. He has got to learn to play with a better pad level. He has got to take better care of the ball, but Malik Miller is going to be a real good football player. We’re anticipating him seeing playing time next year.”