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Position Review: Auburn’s running backs

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn running back Peyton Barber cuts back to avoid a tackle Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the Iron Bowl.
Auburn running back Peyton Barber cuts back to avoid a tackle Saturday, Nov. 28, 2015 at Jordan-Hare Stadium in the Iron Bowl.

Note - Auburn started preparing for the Birmingham Bowl this week, but with the regular season in the books it’s not too early to take a position-by-position look at how the Tigers performed in 2015 and what the future holds.

Grading Out: It was a mixed bag for Auburn’s running back this season.

Production was significantly down compared to coach Gus Malzahn’s first two years in the Plains and a strong performance in the Birmingham Bowl won’t get them close to those numbers.

Auburn finished the regular season with 2,301 rushing yards on 4.33 yards per carry.

Last year, the team had 3,321 yards with an average of 5.47 yards a carry and in 2013 the Tigers were the top running team in the country with 4,596 yards.

There were plenty of issues that contributed to the struggles — a lack of a running quarterback, a non-existent downfield passing game and the play calling — but the running backs share in the blame.

Peyton Barber was able to move the chains if Auburn fed him the ball, but wasn’t able to consistently get into the second level of the defense. He had 20 runs of 10 yards or more and only three of those went for 20 or more.

Auburn’s primary back in 2014 Cameron Artis-Payne had 45 runs of 10 yards or more and 14 of those went for 20 or more.

Jovon Robinson showed he was capable of being that kind of back late in the season, but the coaching staff seemed reluctant to commit to the junior college transfer. He only had one game where he reached the 20 carry mark.

Curtain Call: Lawyer Tillman is the lone senior running back on the team. The second generation Tiger spent much of his career as a special teams player, but he did make the most of five carries in a 56-34 win over Idaho. He had 24 rushing yards and two of his carries went for first downs.

Stockwatch: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn sounded convinced that all four of Auburn’s primary running backs will be back for 2016. It would be a slight surprise considering Roc Thomas found himself as the odd man out at times.

Auburn turned to Barber and Robinson as a one-two punch the final month of the season while Kerryon Johnson developed a role as the Tigers’ wildcat quarterback and returner on special teams.

There’s no question all four are talented, but are there enough carries to go around to satisfy each of them? The coaching staff will try to be creative, but most of Malzahn’s past success has come relying on one back to carry the ball 20-25 times a game.

Class of 2016 Commits: Malik Miller (Madison Academy)

Outlook: Running back will be a position of strength for Auburn even if one of the team’s backs opts not to return. The Tigers reluctance to pick a primary running back this year did have the benefit of giving all four top guys plenty of experience. Barber’s eagerness to prove his sophomore year wasn’t a fluke could make  for an intense competition in the spring.

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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