Editor’s note: Projecting Auburn’s two-deep depth chart based on spring performance.
Auburn coaches tried their best to put up a smoke screen surrounding the team’s starting running back this spring.
“Until we play Clemson in Week 1 and see who can really handle it — drive four, drive five, drive six — it's sometimes to know who's that kind of bellcow that you can really hang your hat on,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said.
It’s the same way Lashlee and company handled the position heading into last season when Roc Thomas was made the starter only days before the season-opener against Louisville. The title carried little weight with Lashlee only guaranteeing Thomas the first few snaps in the Chic-Fil-A Kickoff Game.
After Thomas injured his ankle in the first half, he was used sparingly the rest of the season. He finished the year with 43 carries for 274 yards with one touchdown.
Thomas was back in the mix this spring splitting first team reps with Jovon Robinson. Both backs came into camp energized, drawing rave reviews all through camp.
“Those guys attitudes and work ethic have been great,” Lashlee said. “A lot of the things we’re stressing to all of the guys are effort, attitude and toughness. That’s three things you can control that have nothing to do with talent. How much effort? What’s your attitude like and how tough are you? When you see Roc come in a little bigger, you see Jovon slim down to maybe add a little burst to his game, that’s good.”
Lashlee did his best to make the two sound like equals, but it was hard not to see Robinson as the front runner for the starting job.
The junior college transfer’s performance during the final stretch of games gave him a leg up on the job and a solid month’s worth of practice did nothing to change his status.
“His first real opportunity to get meaningful carries was Texas A&M, and he did great,” Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said. “And he comes back and plays good against Georgia, and he plays good against Alabama, and he's the MVP of the bowl game. I think some of it, not just with running backs but with any position, is that when I get the chance, am I gonna seize the day? And that's what he did.”
Thomas shouldn’t have as limited of a role as he did last season, but don’t count Kerryon Johnson out as the team’s primary backup. Johnson missed spring practice recovering from shoulder surgery, but showed plenty of promise as a true freshman showing off his versatility last year as a traditional tailback, returning kicks and running the wildcat package.
The sophomore fullbacks came out of spring camp with an eye on increased playing time.
Both cross-trained at running back and the coaching staff has pledged to increase their roles in the fall. According to Horton, Cox had a strong showing in the team’s first scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Pettway missed the practice with a hamstring, but both played well during A-Day. Pettway broke a 40-yard run in the third quarter and finished the game with 77 yards on seven carries while Cox set up the first points of the exhibition with a 71-yard run late in the first quarter.
“You can see both of them have a chance to help us,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
There’s very little gap between the two at the position going into the fall. Cox credited their healthy competition for pushing them this spring.
“This year, there's a big difference,” Cox said. “I feel different, and I know he feels different. We're just pushing each other to get better each time. When he is out there on the field, I want him to do great. And he wants me to do great when I'm out there.”
Coming up: Projecting Auburn’s linebackers