Editor's note: One of the biggest position battles for Auburn this spring is at running back. Two players vying for the job were on the roster last season: redshirt sophomore Peyton Barber and true sophomore Roc Thomas. We'll highlight each player this week in a two-part series. We have the second and final entry of the series today, as we look at Thomas, considered the co-favorite to emerge as the starter along with junior college transfer Jovon Robinson.
AUBURN, Ala. — The last time Roc Thomas took the field in a key role for Auburn was a moment everyone affiliated with the program, including himself, would rather erase from history.
That play came in last year's Iron Bowl. And it was the first one from scrimmage, to boot. On the play, the Tigers decided to toss a swing pass Thomas' way coming out of the backfield. Thomas had his hands on the ball, but didn't catch it. Thinking it was going to be ruled an incomplete pass, Thomas made a half-hearted effort to recover it. The only problem was, it was still a live ball. Alabama's Reggie Ragland scooped it up and the Crimson Tide went on to score on the ensuing possession.
After the gaffe, Thomas didn't return to the contest. He made an appearance in the Outback Bowl, but didn't touch the ball. But according to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, Thomas not registering a carry in the final seven quarters of the season wasn't punishment or a lack of faith in the then-true freshman.
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It's just the way things worked out.
"It really bothered him, obviously, when he did that the first play, felt like he let the team down," Lashlee said. "We just didn't feel like, at that point, mentally, we needed to put him right back in, and then, just the way the game went, he never went back in."
Thomas said Lashlee's characterization of his feelings in the aftermath of the fumble was spot-on.
"I was mad at that moment," he said, "but afterward, I was pretty much just encouraging my teammates on the sideline because they encouraged me right after that moment. So I mean, that's pretty much what I did."
The mistake, Thomas said, is behind him now. The coaching staff agreed. This spring, Thomas finds himself in a three-way battle to take over as the starter. In the minds of many, Thomas and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson are candidates 1 and 1A to win the job.
With the trio — which also includes redshirt sophomore Peyton Barber — all receiving carries with the first-team during practices, however, Thomas said he doesn't feel any player holds an edge.
"Since we are splitting reps, we try to encourage each other," he said. "It's really just a group effort. We are pretty much brothers out there."
Still, every player who has to fight to crack the starting lineup wants to see his hard work pay off. And Thomas said despite the fact his numbers last year weren't sparkling — 43 carries for 214 yards and two touchdowns — it was a success. He played. He had to deal with the struggles many first-year players face, too. (Aside from the Alabama game, he also fumbled in his first career outing as a Tiger in a September victory against San Jose State.)
But he attests he absorbed nearly as much off the field as he did on it.
"In the meeting rooms, they were like the first ones to answer questions, so I'm learning from them and I'm picking up a lot of things from them," he said of the senior duo of Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. "So they helped me a out a lot, because I was the one sitting back and just watching everything, trying to take everything in, not being the first one to step up and do stuff."
His comfort level on the field and in the film room no longer an issue, Thomas turned his attention elsewhere. That meant committing himself to the weight room during the offseason. Thomas has gained 10 pounds since the end of last year.
And most importantly, he hasn't lost a step.
"It's made me feel a lot stronger," said Thomas, who, ideally, would like to play at 205 pounds. "I think I've gained a lot of muscle mass and just good weight. It's not any bad weight. I think I feel a little faster with it, so, I think that's a good thing."
"Roc had been nicked and bruised throughout that freshman year, and that's normal for a freshman. He was at 190, which isn't a bad weight, but he's put 10 pounds on or so, and it's good, lean mass, and he looks as quick and as fast, if not faster," the coach said. "As long as he doesn't lose his quickness and speed, then obviously that'll help him, because in our league, he's going to take more hits, probably this year than he did last year."
It might not be as many as people think, though. The coaching staff hasn't ruled out divvying up the carries more evenly than the past two seasons, when Tre Mason and Artis-Payne were workhorses in the backfield.
How would Thomas feel about sharing the load?
"I'm all for it. Whatever works best and whatever helps out the team best. ... (When) one person ends up getting a lot of carries, I mean, that's a lot of mileage on one person," he said. "Three people running the ball that's evenly split? I think it could hurt defenses."
As for Thomas specifically, Lashlee didn't see any reason to try to temper expectations. The former Alabama Mr. Football arrived on campus with immense hype.
He very well could start to show why this fall.
"I think he's motivated. ... I think now he appreciates what he learned from getting to watch Cameron and Corey, how they prepared, how older guys approach everything, not just on the field," Lashlee said. "I think he's in a good position."