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Auburn running back Roc Thomas starter in name only for week one

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Roc Thomas (9) ran for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Auburn's victory over San Jose State on Sept. 6.
Roc Thomas (9) ran for a touchdown in the fourth quarter of Auburn's victory over San Jose State on Sept. 6. Auburn Athletics

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee didn’t make it sound like the team’s running back situation is any clearer than it was before the team released a depth chart Tuesday with Roc Thomas in the top slot.

Thomas spent training camp competing with fellow running backs Jovon Robinson, Peyton Barber and freshman Kerryon Johnson. Robinson and Barber are listed as the backups with an “OR” between their names.

Lashlee wouldn’t guarantee anything more than the first snap for the running back designated on the team’s two-deep as the starter.

“We really still don't have a starter, but Roc has earned the right to go out there first,” Lashlee said. “He's had a great camp, we feel good about Peyton, we feel good about Jovon and to be honest with you we feel good about Kerryon, so they'll all get chances.”

The offensive coordinator views the position as one of the “unknowns” for the Tigers’ offense going into the team’s season opener against Louisville Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

Lashlee said “feel of the game” will ultimately dictate the amount of carries each back gets.

“There’s a lot of guys we’re going to learn a lot about because it’s one thing to do it on the practice field, you do it in front of 70-80,000 and millions on TV and in the big moment and consistently, who some guys have that, some guys it takes them more time to get there so we’ll see,” Lashlee said.

Lashlee’s reasoning echoes what coach Gus Malzahn said throughout training camp -- the coaching staff wants to evaluate actual game film of the backs before moving forward with a clear No. 1. 

The depth chart created some uncertainty about that plan to use a ‘running back-by-committee’ approach when Thomas was tabbed as the starter.

On the two-deep, positions where starters haven’t been determined -- left guard, linebacker and one of the wide receiver spots -- included an “OR” between the first and second string.

Thomas looked like he had separated himself for the pack.

1,000 rushers under Gus Malzahn

    • Auburn RB Cameron Artis-Payne 1,651 yards (2014)
    • Auburn RB Tre Mason 1,835 yards (2013)
    • Auburn QB Nick Marshall 1,225 yards (2013)
    • Auburn RB Michael Dyer 1,293 yards (2011)
    • Auburn QB Cam Newton 1,662 yards (2010)
    • Auburn RB Michael Dyer 1,106 yards (2010)
    • Auburn RB Ben Tate 1,406 yards (2009)
    • Tulsa RB Tarrion Adams 1,548 yards (2008)
    • Tulsa RB Tarrion Adams 1,271 yards (2007)
    • Arkansas RB Darren McFadden 1,647 yards (2006)
    • Arkansas RB Felix Jones 1,168 yards (2006)

“He worked extremely hard all summer and all spring. He deserves this position that he’s in and I feel like he’s going to carry the load,” Auburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson said, Tuesday.

But the team’s most experienced back will need to show up on game day in order to get the bulk of the work.

The 5-foot-10, 203-pound sophomore out of Oxford, Alabama is trying to help fill the void left by Cameron Artis-Payne. Last year, Artis-Payne ran for 1,651 yards with 13 touchdowns on 303 carries.

Thomas ran for 228 yards with two touchdowns on 43 carries in a backup role. He appeared in 12 games, making two starts.

A strong running game has been a staple of Malzahn’s offenses throughout his entire coaching career. The Tigers have had at least one 1,000-yard rusher each year he’s been in charge of the offense as a coach (2013-present) and offensive coordinator (2009-11). 

After leading the country in rushing in 2013 (328.3 yards per game), Auburn had the 13th best rushing attack last year (255.5), surpassing 300 yards four times.

His stints as a head coach at Arkansas State (2012), offensive coordinator at Tulsa (2007-08) and offensive coordinator at Arkansas (2006) also produced a 1,000-yard rusher.

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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