Gus Malzahn’s running game has had a short but outstanding stretch of success, which is expected to continue in 2015.

Last season’s primary running back, Cameron Artis-Payne, led the SEC with 1,608 rushing yards, and the Tigers were second in the conference in yards per carry (5.5). The Tigers’ top rusher in 2014 moved on to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Quarterback Nick Marshall and backup running back Corey Grant, who combined for 1,162 rushing yards, also departed.

Most initially expected Auburn to choose between junior-college transfer Jovon Robinson and returnees Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber, giving one of them the spotlight and potentially the chance to approach Artis-Payne’s 303 carries of a season ago.

However, less than two weeks away from the season opener against Louisville, Auburn is apparently leaning toward a “running back by committee” approach. That’s not necessarily a bad thing when you consider the fact that Tre Mason didn’t emerge as the Tigers’ top rusher until the fourth game of the 2013 season. And all he did was run for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns on his way to becoming a Heisman finalist — while helping Auburn win the SEC Championship and leading it to the BCS National Championship Game.

While the Tigers might not be going into this season with a clear workhorse, their top three running backs all have shown potential. It will be interesting to see if one of them emerges as the leader of this skilled pack.

Here’s a look at this year’s talented Tigers trio listed in order of where each player currently is on the depth chart.

Roc Thomas: As the third option behind Artis-Payne last season, Thomas had just 43 carries for 214 yards and two touchdowns. But in the A-Day Game, the 5-foot-10, 203-pound sophomore from Anniston, Ala., led the Tigers with 69 yards, including a 36-yard scamper for a touchdown on his first carry of the day. He also scored a touchdown with Auburn’s second-team offense on a 12-yard reception.

More of a pass-catching threat out of the backfield than Barber is, Thomas also had six catches for 27 yards in 2014.

Peyton Barber: A 5-foot-11, 225-pound sophomore from Alpharetta, Ga., Barber rushed six times for 32 yards in Auburn’s spring game after finishing with 54 yards on 10 carries last season. Barber is more like Robinson than he is like Thomas — big and tough between the tackles.

Jovon Robinson: The 6-foot, 230-pounder signed with Tigers in December after rushing for 3,198 yards and 23 touchdowns in two seasons at Georgia Military College. He made his biggest impact in 2013, when he set the JUCO record for rushing yards in a season with 2,367.

Robinson’s ties to Auburn go back to 2012, when he originally signed with the Tigers as one of the top prep prospects in Alabama. However, after being ruled academically ineligible, Robinson left the Plains after just two weeks on campus. But he made a triumphant return to Auburn in this year’s A-Day Game, when he had 19 yards on six carries.


Auburn’s rushing game has been the best in the SEC the last two seasons, with the Tigers averaging 255 yards on the ground per game in 2014 and 328 in 2013, numbers that might be difficult for the Tigers to approach in Malzahn’s third year as the team’s head coach.

But Auburn’s passing game — behind new starting QB Jeremy Johnson and returning receivers D’haquille Williams and Ricardo Louis — more than likely will keep opposing defenses honest, which should open things up for the Tigers’ unproven running backs, whose talent should trump their inexperience.

Robinson, whom several considered the favorite to start early during spring practice, fell to a clear third on the depth chart early during preseason camp. If anyone has potential to shake up the backfield order, it’s him.

But Thomas has done a good job alleviating concerns about ball security. Auburn’s coaches believe he can get the tough yards between the tackles. They haven’t questioned his physicality, but at 203 pounds, they wonder whether his body can sustain an entire season of collisions.

That gives even more credence to the idea that the Tigers could use a by-committee approach out of the backfield this fall.