Auburn running back Peyton Barber left practice Thursday night leading up to the season-opener Saturday with a pit in his stomach.
During a walkthrough, the sophomore made a number of mistakes in one of the final practice sessions before facing Louisville.
Teammate Roc Thomas was named the Tigers starter earlier in the week, but the coaching staff still planned to split carries between Thomas, Barber and Jovon Robinson.
Barber worried his performance might factor into how the coaches used the running backs on game day. He couldn’t let it go, so he sent Gus Malzahn a late-night text.
“I was kind of nervous that he wouldn’t have faith in me,” Barber said. “I just wanted to text him and reassure him that he could trust me.”
Malzahn’s confidence in the sophomore never waivered as evidenced by the 24 carries he had in the 31-24 win over the Cardinals.
When Thomas and Robinson were banged up in the first half, the Tigers turned to Barber to be their workhorse. He thrived in that position going for 115 yards on the ground, and played a key role on both of the team’s second-half scoring drives.
“A big part of the second half – we had two really good drives in the second half: the one to open the half and then the one to go down and go up I think it was 31-10, we took six or seven minutes off the clock,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “A lot of that was running the football and a lot of that was because Peyton was making yards after contact, wasn’t getting tired, so really proud of him.”
Lashlee called Barber a “conscientious” player in describing the 5-foot-11, 225-pounders approach.
“(Players like Peyton) They want to do right so bad that sometimes you worry so much about not making a mistake instead of just going out and reacting and playing,” Lashlee said. “He knows what to do and a lot of times certain guys, that build up, the anticipation, starts to kinda -- I don't want to say they lock up, but they get really worried about it; they want to do so well.”
Lashlee had confidence that once the ball was snapped Barber would focus on what he’s good at -- running the football.
“Usually once you throw them in the fire and the game starts, adrenaline, momentum starts happening,” Lashlee said. “The game's playing, you don't see guys think as much, they react and that's what Peyton did because he knows what to do.”
Barber said the attitude stems from “wanting to be great,” which is why he focused on the areas he can improve in meeting with the media Sunday night, and not his 100-yard performance.
“I want to get better in my pass-protection game, actually breaking a big, long run,” Barber said.
Despite the standout performance, competition at the position will continue. Lashlee listed Thomas and Robinson as “day-to-day,” and expects all three backs to be in uniform for the home-opener against Jacksonville State.
“We’re going to need them all,” Lashlee said. “Just like last night, two of them dropped in one drive, so you never know in this league what will happen.”
But Lashlee hopes next time Barber thinks about sending a late night text he thinks about his week one performance.
“I’d say a guy like Peyton definitely, hopefully, earns some confidence in himself,” Lashlee said. “He earned confidence from his teammates and his coaches. You feel really confident that he’s now gone out there. Twenty-four carries in a big game in about two and half quarters is a lot. And he carried the load and did very well.”