AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn’s tried and true approach at running back doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon.
Yes, even with Jovon Robinson as the favorite to win the starting job, the Tigers will stretch the battle through the summer and possibly into and beyond the season opener against Clemson.
At least that’s the belief held by Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee as Robinson and Roc Thomas go at it for the right to be the Tigers’ go-to man in the backfield. Auburn’s big bang of the spring is Saturday at the annual A-Day scrimmage inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I don’t know if we have a true pecking order,” Lashlee said. “They all do other things different than the other well.”
Newcomer Malik Miller, along with fullbacks/H-Backs Kamryn Pettway and Chandler Cox, have also taken snaps at tailback this spring. Robinson, however, appeared set to be the starter after finishing the last third of the 2015 season as the best running back on the roster. He rushed for 90 yards or more in five of the final six games and was named the MVP of the Birmingham Bowl.
And yet Auburn is hesitant to name a clear-cut favorite or starter heading into the A-Day game.
“I like our motto this season, and it’s ‘Earn It,’” running backs coach Tim Horton said earlier this spring. “I think that’s been good for Jovon. He’s going to have to earn it. Same way with Roc. You’re going to have to earn your playing time, you’re going to have to earn your carries, you’re going to have to earn victories. It’s going to be hard. But I like the motto.”
As Auburn enters the fourth season of the Malzahn era, it’s possible the battle could stretch beyond A-Day and through the first few weeks of the season. Auburn waited nearly one month to name eventual Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason its starter in 2013. Cameron Artis-Payne had to earn the job in 2014 and 2015 was a mishmash that started with Thomas as the starter but led to Peyton Barber spending most of the season as the go-to threat due to injuries to Robinson and Thomas.
“So probably the reason is, a lot of times, unless you just have a clear-cut guy, you need to get a few games in to find out, ‘OK, who’s the toughest of these guys? Who can not only just have a good run here or there, but who can handle the pounding for 20, 25-plus carries in our league? Who gets better as the game goes on?’” Lashlee said.
“You learn your guys. We’ve got good information on Jovon. We’ve got good information on Roc. We’ve got decent information on [Kerryon Johnson]; it’s hurt him not being able to go through the spring, but we think he’s going to be a really good back and it’s good that he’ll be ready to roll throughout the summer and all that. And then we’ve got guys like Chandler and Kamryn Pettway that have played some running back in high school, so we’ve got some versatility there.”
“But until we play Clemson in Week 1 and see who can really handle it — Drive 4, Drive 5, Drive 6 — it’s sometimes to know who’s that kind of bell cow that you can really hang your hat on,” Lashlee added. “That’s probably why.”