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Auburn won’t panic replacing RB Roc Thomas thanks to versatile fullbacks

Auburn fullback Kamryn Pettway carries the ball prior to A-Day at Jordan-Hare Stadium on April 9, 2016.
Auburn fullback Kamryn Pettway carries the ball prior to A-Day at Jordan-Hare Stadium on April 9, 2016. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn’s coaching staff spent the spring talking up Chandler Cox and Kamryn Pettway as legitimate candidates for increased playing time at running back.

Neither fullback carried the ball as freshmen last fall, but both took reps at the position during spring camp and received rave reviews.

“There was a lot of focus on giving those guys a lot of reps and seeing what they could do,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “And, at the same time, feel more comfortable and give us more depth at the tailback position next year.”

Their encouraging auditions could be critical to maintaining Auburn’s depth in the backfield after Tuesday’s announcement coach Gus Malzahn had granted running back Roc Thomas release to transfer.

Thomas leaving the program combined with Peyton Barber declaring early for the NFL draft leaves the Auburn thin at running back going into the fall.

Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson, who was sidelined with a shoulder injury this spring, are the only backs on the roster with experience while true freshman Malik Miller looked like a candidate to redshirt.

Cox and Pettway are now legitimate candidates for a role that goes beyond blocking this fall.

“The biggest pleasant surprise for me was the two fullbacks that played tailback — Kamyron Pettway and Chandler Cox were both really good,” Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said at an Auburn alumni club event in May. “I really didn’t know that they would be as explosive as they were. You saw both of them during the spring game have two long runs, in fact I think both of those runs were longer than any run we had last year. They both showed the ability that they can play both positions.”

Pettway ran for than 1,400 yards as a senior for Prattville High School. Cox played a variety of positions — quarterback, tight end and fullback — helping Apopka High School in Florida win a state title and was one of the team’s three 1,000 yard rushers.

“They're not the tallest guys, but they're big, they're strong, they're physical and they're instinctive,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “They both can run the ball. Kamyrn Pettway was a running back in high school. They snapped the dab-gum thing to Chandler and let him run all over people, so they've got the versatility I think, in year two, we'll be able to use.”

The fallout from Thomas’ decision could also impact the number of recruits Auburn signs at running back next year.

Horton said the Tigers were signing “at least two running backs” and an athlete that can play multiple positions. Without Thomas, the team could look at bringing in a junior college transfer.