AUBURN, Ala. — Not since Jay Prosch was bulldozing linebackers and paving the way for the nation’s top rushing offense has Auburn felt this confident about its fullbacks.
It’s been three years since Auburn had a solid, consistent and powerful option to plow the road in the zone-read option offense, but the Tigers feel as if they have two suitable and experienced players capable of lifting the offense out of its recent rut. Former running backs Kamryn Pettway and Chandler Cox have a year under their belt playing the position. They’re not only capable, but they might be two of the better players on the entire offense in the fall.
“We obviously took a dip when we lost Jay (Prosch) and it was more because Jay was just so good, but we feel like going into this season — last year we felt good about those guys but there wasn’t any experience and they lack that SEC experience you need — they have more of that and I think both of those guys can be playmakers for us and two of our better overall football players on our offense,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told SEC Country. “If you look, we’ve been at our best when we have productive guys at those positions. We’re excited about those guys.”
Auburn struggled in 2014 and 2015, but was most notably susceptible in 2014 with Brandon Fulse attempting to adapt to the position. Then, coaches decided to move running back Kamryn Pettway to fullback/H-Back to go along with Chandler Cox, a freshman with great hands and a knack for running routes out of the backfield, in 2015.
Pettway (6-2, 242 pounds) certainly has the size and Cox (6-1, 236 pounds) has the versatility and potential add weight while maintaining himself as a threat in the passing game as he continues to digest the offense.
“I felt like a totally different person,” Cox said in the spring. “That’s what I learned. It took time, it was frustrating, it was stressful. I’ve got a few gray hairs already but it’s OK. Each week at a time, just to better myself in the film room and out on the field and practice.”
What has made chasing fullback prospects on the recruiting trail difficult is that those type of players are rarely developed on the high school level as spread offenses become the norm across the country. That’s also a misconception for Auburn’s offense. It almost always requires a power fullback to properly operate the zone-read offense, which is at its best with powerful blockers and an uptempo approach.
Auburn didn’t have to develop Prosch. He was built and ready to block by the time he transferred from Illinois.
“Jay Prosch was the model and we got him as a transfer player,” Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to find that player in high school because you are seeing so many more spread offenses and you don’t see the true fullback. We want to get somebody that can obviously do the things that we ask of our running backs in terms of carrying the ball and catching the ball out of the backfield, but you don’t get a chance maybe to evaluate as many fullbacks as you once did because the offenses have changed.”
That’s why coaches like Horton have become masters of projecting players’ physiques in one to two years of weight training in Auburn’s strength and conditioning program.
“It’s difficult but you do have to make sure that you’re exact in your evaluations and you said it: there’s not a lot of true fullbacks,” Lashlee said. “You also don’t have two or three years these days to develop guys, either. You kinda have to have them ready to go pretty quick. I think that’s why we had success with a guy like Kamryn Pettway, who was a high school running back and a big physical guy. A guy like Chandler Cox did it all for his team and he’s translating well.”
Pettway and Cox will become even more important if John Franklin III wins Auburn’s quarterback job in August. The return of a full-fledged zone-read attack is only as good as the blocking up front and at fullback. For the first time in three years, Auburn feels confident about its fullbacks.
“Both those kids have the chance to be outstanding, as good as there are in our league,” Horton said.