June 8, 2016
AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn was already light on established offensive playmakers entering what will be a crucial season for him at Auburn, and that number took another hit last week.
Former 5-star running back Roc Thomas decided to transfer away from the Plains to Jacksonville State, the defending FCS runner-up that nearly stunned Auburn with an upset last season. While Thomas was only entering his true junior season, he had more seasons of experience than any other rusher on the roster.
Although Thomas appeared to be transitioning to more of a slot receiver role for the Auburn offense in 2016, his departure to Jacksonville State will cause a shakeup in a Tiger backfield that needs to find its magic again after a down 2015.
Even with his inconsistencies with injuries and ball security, Thomas would have been a valuable offensive weapon for the Tigers this fall. His burst and shiftiness made him a big-play threat whenever he kept the ball in his hands.
So how will the Thomas transfer impact the present and the future of Auburn’s running backs? Let’s take a closer look.
Jovon Robinson is the clear-cut No. 1 RB for 2016
This seemed more and more obvious as the spring went on, but Thomas’ transfer removed all doubt—senior Jovon Robinson will be the top running back for the Tigers this fall.
According to Wesley Sinor of AL.com, running backs coach Tim Horton “implied” last month that Robinson was the favorite over Thomas to become the starter after calling it a close battle between the two during spring practices.
“Obviously Jovon Robinson really had a nice spring,” Horton said, per Sinor. “He kind of elevated himself going into fall camp. He’s in a good position.”
After battling an ankle sprain early in the year, Robinson came on strong during the end of 2015, rushing for more than 90 yards in five of Auburn’s final six games. He had more carries down the stretch than starter Peyton Barber, who declared early for the NFL draft this offseason.
The JUCO transfer showcased the abilities that made him a coveted recruit on two separate occasions for the Tigers. The 230-pound Robinson is a physical, downhill running back who also has good burst and moves in the open field. In short, he’s the ideal all-around rusher for a Malzahn offense.
“Jovon has been in the offense for one year, and now you can tell he’s more confident than he was,” Malzahn said during spring camp. “We can do some more things with him.”
Robinson averaged nearly 5.5 yards per carry in 2015 and proved he could handle the wear-and-tear of being a primary back late last season. With another offseason of preparation in the offense behind him, he could be a real force in the SEC this fall.
“I have high goals and high expectations for myself,” Robinson said. “I want to be the next 1,000-yard rusher. I like that title. I’m definitely looking forward to starting off the season right, playing Clemson, starting off the season on a high note.”
Look for Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway to step up
Of course, Robinson can’t do it alone. Malzahn likes rotation at the position, and he’s had three different running backs carry the ball at least 40 times in each of his three seasons as Auburn’s head coach.
With Barber off to the NFL, Thomas was expected to be one of those top alternates, even with a position switch to slot receiver. Receiver Ricardo Louis, who was in a similar role, carried the ball just under 30 times last season.
Auburn has a handful of younger options to plug into the three-headed backfield, and sophomores Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway appear to be the leaders there.
Both Johnson and Pettway fit into specific and much-needed roles for the Auburn rushing attack. Johnson is similar to Thomas with his speed and agility, while Pettway is a big bruiser who should thrive in short-yardage situations.
As Thomas struggled with nagging injuries last season, Johnson finished 2015 with more carries than the now-departed back. The former 4-star athlete had a breakout performance as a reserve in a win over Kentucky, and he found the end zone again in the Birmingham Bowl victory against Memphis.
Johnson missed all of spring practices while recovering from shoulder surgery, but he should be ready to go in time for fall camp. According to Brandon Marcello of SEC Country, Malzahn said Johnson “has a chance to be an impact player” in 2016 for the Tigers.
Pettway brings tremendous bulk to the position after playing fullback with Chandler Cox as a true freshman last fall. The 242-pound sophomore cross-trained at running back this spring, leading the team with 77 yards on just seven carries at A-Day.
While Cox was recruited as a traditional fullback, Pettway is a natural running back, rushing for 1,402 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Alabama high school powerhouse Prattville. Both can carry the ball, but Pettway has more experience at the position.
“I think [Pettway and Cox] bring a certain element of toughness to the position that we needed,” Horton said. “They’re fall-forward backs. They’re going to get yards after contact. They’re going to move the chains.”
Expect Cox to take over as the full-time starter at fullback as Pettway moves to a role in which he provides more depth at running back. Whenever Robinson is on the sidelines this season, Auburn could use Pettway and Johnson as a classic “thunder-and-lightning” combo in certain situations.
Reinforcements are coming to fill in the gap
With Robinson entering his final year of eligibility, the Tigers will have lost two running backs from its 2016 A-Day squad by the time spring practice starts in 2017. But the future isn’t dark for the running back position on the Plains.
In addition to Johnson and Pettway, Auburn also has true freshman running back Malik Miller, who was a high-school teammate of Johnson’s at Madison (Alabama) Academy.
The Tigers might not need to rely on Miller too much in 2016, but he’ll be there to provide extra depth and build toward the future. Like Robinson, he has the look of a do-it-all back.
“You see someone that loves the game. He’s very coachable. He’s got a lot of really good qualities about him,” Horton said. “He catches the ball well, he pass protects well, and he knows the offense really well for someone who [is new to the team]. We’re real pleased with Malik and what the future holds for him.”
Auburn also gained a running back for the future last weekend after losing Thomas to a transfer, going back to the tried-and-true JUCO pipeline of offensive talent.
The Tigers flipped 3-star athlete Octavius Matthews from his commitment to Louisville during the annual “Big Cat Weekend” recruiting event. As Steve Wiltfong of 247Sports writes, Matthews was once rated as the No. 1 JUCO rusher in the class of 2017, and he has the potential to be “an every-down back” at Auburn.
“I feel like he is a game-breaker back,” Sean Cannon, Matthews’ coach at Itawamba Community College, told Wiltfong. “He had six or seven runs over 50-yards for us. I think the speed factor is definitely there… I think for what [Auburn does], the tempo offense they run and spread system I think he’s a perfect fit for what they do.”
With Johnson, Pettway, Miller and Matthews all in line to lead Auburn’s rushing attack in 2017 and beyond, the Tigers should be able to take the departure of Thomas in stride.
Now the key will be for the running backs currently on campus to help make sure Malzahn will still be with them this time next year.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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