Auburn's next starting running back can swing SEC rushing title
In recent years, earning the starting running back job at Auburn has been a position of honor, especially so with Gus Malzahn calling the shots. In 2015, the Tigers will have a new starting running back for the third straight seasons, with two strong options waiting in the wings: Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas.
Since Malzahn took over as head coach, seeing a Tiger atop the SEC’s rushing standings has become commonplace. In 2013, Auburn’s read-option offense (and a monster late-season charge) propelled Tre Mason to the conference’s rushing title and a third round selection in the NFL draft. Cameron Artis-Payne took over the role in 2014, and though he wasn’t Mason’s equal in terms of explosiveness, he still led the SEC in rushing and appears headed to the NFL as well. Those two made it six straight years Auburn has had a running back top 1,000 yards.
On top of replacing Artis-Payne, Auburn has to worry about filling in the yards lost with Nick Marshall, who served as the dual-threat triggerman of Malzahn’s offensive machine the last two season. Marshall’s successor is already in place with Jeremy Johnson, but while Johnson is a good athlete he’s not expected to be as much of a running threat as Marshall was.
Who is the favorite to stand next to Johnson in the backfield?
Heading into spring practice, it seems like Robinson might have a leg up. Robinson, who initially signed with Auburn in 2012 before spending two years at Georgia Military College, is a compact, powerful runner with excellent burst. At 5-foot-11 and 225 pounds, he has the power to carry defenders and the speed to sprint past them.
He showed that in 2013, when he was the NJCAA national player of the year. His totals were absolutely staggering: 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns. He was dinged up for much of 2014 and was held under 1,000 yards on the year, but that didn’t change his status as the top JUCO recruit in the country.
Does Thomas have a chance to claim the starting role? A former five-star recruit and Alabama Mr. Football, Thomas had limited opportunities behind Artis-Payne, Marshall and Corey Grant in 2014. He ran for 214 yards on 43 carries and scored twice, but was a bit indecisive with his cuts and choosing holes. Still, Thomas has the size and speed necessary to be an elite running back, and he’ll get opportunities to show he can handle a bigger workload.
Outside of Robinson and Thomas, Auburn has plenty of backup options. The reigning Mr. Football in Alabama, Kerryon Johnson, joins the Tigers and will be a dangerous threat both catching the ball and running. It’s hard to imagine Malzahn keeping him off the field even as a true freshman. Peyton Barber, who will be a redshirt sophomore, earned himself limited snaps in 2014 and will challenge for playing time as well.
No matter who wins the starting job, Auburn will have plenty of carries to go around. The Tigers had the 13th-most rushing attempts in the nation in 2014 and were second only to LSU in the SEC. Auburn will have one of the best rushing offenses in the country, there’s no question about it.
The only question is who will end up with the majority of the carries. The SEC’s rushing title could hinge on it.