Monday, July 6, 2015

The Battle in Auburn's Backfield: Who is the Real Winner

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The biggest position battle for Auburn is in the backfield. That's not really a surprise. Auburn has boasted the last two SEC yardage champs in Mason and Payne. Most people know that there are 3 guys on Auburn's roster who are legitimate heirs to the long lineage of great Auburn RBs: Barber, Robinson, and Thomas. Eventually, one of these three guys is going to become the 3-down back for Auburn, but does that mean the other 2 guys lose out? I don't think so. History tells us many things about Auburn backs and Malzahn's offense. Obviously Auburn is Running Back U, who boasts a lineage of great backs. Almost every single starting running back over the last 30 years, dating back to Bo, has gone on to a career in the NFL. Many of these guys have had to sit behind another great back before getting his chance. Perhaps the most important thing is that it takes weeks for Gus to decide on a lead back. Yet, in Malzahn's offense, you can still be a vital part of his offense without being a stereotypical 3-down guy who lines up behind center. In this case, I believe the guy who will start out as 3rd stinger (in terms of taking handoffs from behind center) on the depth chart is going to end up being the real winner. 

Despite being a play-off contender by many pundits, Auburn has a ton of questions coming out of spring and summer. It's obvious that most analysts/writers, amateurs and professions alike believe in Malzahn's system. "In Gus We Trust" is one of the many monikers that circulate in the "Loveliest Village on the Plains." But, people are discounting some pretty important facts. Chief among the bits that are getting overlooked are the personnel losses on the offense from previous years. 

Let's take a look at some of those losses. 

Nick Marshall is one of the most clutch players to ever play at Auburn. I can't remember a QB who made plays as monumental as Nick Marshall, on the largest stage, in the biggest games. He was so good, week in and week out, that many fans came to believe his play was the norm. We sometimes forget that Auburn's defense was so bad in 2014 that Nick had to play flawless for Auburn to win ANY games. But, he is off to the NFL. It's true that Jeremy Johnson is probably the most NFL-ready QB that Auburn has had....ever. As I wrote almost a year ago, it is imperative that he be the man we all think he is going to be, and not just from a win/loss perspective but from the image that he could restore to Auburn as being a squeaky clean program. 

Why Auburn Needs/Wants Jeremy Johnson to Succeed


So, we all sit back and say..."yeah, we lost Marshall...but Johnson is a  better QB, anyway."

How about the loss at center? Golson, the Ole Miss transfer, looks to be the next man up. But, you are daft if you think you are going to replace a 4 year starter and Rimington Award winner without some dropoff, especially from a guy who isn't built like a center. 


If you think it's easy to replace a guy like Coates, you better wise up.  We all expect Duke Williams to pick up all the slack left from Sammie Coates departure. Again, we see Williams and his NFL potential, so we don't sweat it. While William's is a first round potential guy, the lack of  production behind him is going to make it easy for teams to gang up on him. Having Coates stretch the field on defenses opened up William's and his magnificent frame and hands, especially across the middle. 

But, the most high-profile battle is in the backfield. It's what I want to talk about today, although I don't believe the win/loss column will be affected by the battle. 

And, I believe the battle benefits one particular player the most. 

Let's have a little history lesson:

Malzahn has been willing to let the season decide on who his bell cow is going to be. Only in 2011 did Malzahn have an established 3-down back who wasn't going to be challenged for carries from game 1. That mostly because Dyer was all Auburn had on offense. 

In 2009 when Malzahn was brought aboard, he had several backs who were looking to be starters. In particular, he had Ben Tate, who had edged close to 1,000 yards in 2007 and Mario Fannin, who had received far fewer carries than Tate, but held a much higher YPC and a wider skillset than Tate. While Fannin earned the moniker "fumblin' Fannin" which eventually led the way for Tate to become the 3rd down back, it was McCalebb who profited the most, despite having a completely different skillset than the former two. The scat-back led all rushers in 3 out of the first 4 games posting 2 100+ yards games before settling in for 560 total yards. 

Again in 2010 as Malzahn admittedly limited Dyer's carries early in the season, McCalebb benefited. He rushed for an astounding 8.1 YPC on his way to 800+ yards as well as another 86 yards and a TD through the air. 

When Malzahn came back to Auburn in 2013, he had a 1,000 yard rusher in Tre Mason. But, he had the #1 JUCO RB in Cameron Artis-Payne on the roster. Yet, he took the same approach and let the game sort out a starter. Eventually Mason emerged, but not after sharing carries with CAP. Meanwhile, who really benefited? Corey Grant. While the carries were divvied up, Grant reeled off 650 yards and 6 TDs behind an impossible 9.8 YPC. 

In 2014, Malzahn brought in 5-Star RB Roc Thomas who had a very similar skillset to Grant. Being in no-man's land, Grant bulked up to challenge CAP for carries. Eventually he lost the job to the future SEC-leader in yardage. By that time, a much improved passer in Marshall and the emergence of Thomas cut into Grant's carries dramatically. He managed a paltry 350 yards but still had an above average YPC, 6.1, which was best among all RBs. 

So, here we are in 2015 with an eerily similar situation unfolding....almost identical to the 2013 situation. Coming out of spring ball were 3 RBs vying for the starting nod. Like the Mason/CAP situation, we have 2 guys who look to excel on the inside game. We have Peyton Barber, who has looked solid when he is healthy, and the #1 JUCO player, 5-Start RB, and former-now-Auburn-player-again Jovon Robinson. 

Word has been very favorable for both these two guys. Barber is listed at 5'11 225 while Robinson at 6'1'' 230. We are left to infer that Barber is a all-purpose back with some open field ability while Robinson is a bowling bowl. 

According to players and coaches, Barber has been electric on the practice field. He was the #1 guy in the A-Day game in 2014...where he scampered for a 14 yard 1st down run before fumbling after injuring himself. He wasn't seen for the remainder of the season, at least in not any meaningful action. He was pretty underwhelming in the 2015 A-Day game with his 9 carries for 46 yards. 

Robinson turned heads all over the field as a true freshman before being ruled academically ineligible. In fact, it was this particular ruling in the fall of 2012 that marked the beginning of the end for Chizik, in my opinion. It was the first in a string of off-the-field incidences that raised a lot of eyebrows before the first snap of the ill-fated 2012 season. But, Robinson did right and headed off to JUCO where he exploded in his first year before being hampered in his last year. Now back at Auburn, many people see him as the bruising inside back that really makes the Gus offense click. Yet, he had only 6 carries for 19 yards in the A-Day game. 

That leaves Roc Thomas, the speedster with a great spin move. Thomas was little-used down the stretch in the 2014 season and culminated in a 1st play from scrimmage fumble that really set the tone in the Iron Bowl...for the wrong reason.Auburn is going to have a great passing attack, but the downfall to a passing offense is always the redzone. Games are won and lost inside the 20s. Nothing between the hashes really matters if you can't score TDs. Thomas has great top speed, deadly lateral ability, and a top tier spin move. None of that will help you when you get smacked in the mouth by a Bama linebacker.  I will be honest and say that he was really an afterthought to me before A-Day. While he has obvious talent, it was the showdown between the two bigger backs that I was most interested in. 

Yet it was Thomas who showed out for A-Day, rushing for 70 yards on 7 carries for 2 TDs including some masterful runs. In particular, a run-after-catch really caught my eye. He took a swing pass in the flats, made a man miss, headed back the middle of the field where he took several hard shots. But his superior balance and spin move allowed him to duck and dodge.  Relegated to speedsweeps no more, Thomas took several inside handoffs for serious yardage, several of those runs where he was hit in the mouth behind the line of scrimmage. 

Perhaps most important is that he was in the game for pass protection on many of the highlights. Pass protection isn't' something that all backs can do,  and it will sure keep some backs off the field. 

Though Thomas showed some electric moves, Malzahn has to have a pile mover on 3rd and short or at the goal line. Thomas isnt' going to be that guy. His skillset says otherwise and his pad level will never work for that style of running. He is a beat you to the edge and make you miss up field kind f runner. A-Day is a glorified scrimmage and we all know it. It's the perfect time for players to show those moves in a setting where it won't hurt. Gus isn't likely to hound on a player if he gets caught for negative yardage because was dancing in the hole, something we have seen Thomas do. Come game time and it's 3rd and short, it won't be Thomas who is in the game. Who will it be? One of the other two players, for sure. And, it will be that player that will be the bellcow down the stretch. 

Believe it or not, I think the winner coming out of spring and summer ball isn't either of the 2 big running backs. Even though he won't be the 3-down lead back for the offense, Roc Thomas is going to end up being the guy who benefits the most. Just as we discussed earlier, the battle for being Auburn's leading rusher will rage into the first 4 or 5 games. Louisville is solid on the interior, but they won't have the speed on the edge that Auburn is going to bring. It could be Louis who takes those bucksweeps, but it could just as easily be Thomas. Louis has great speed, but goes down after first contact. And, I don't think he can match Thomas' open field moves. 

2 of the 3 non-conference cupcake games come in that stretch, which will be ample opportunity for Thomas to lead in all-purpose yardage (let's not forget he returns kicks). Auburn will want to come out blazing the first few series against San Jose and Jacksonville State, but will want to run the clock out as soon as possible, without subjecting players to injury. That's perfect time for Thomas to catch a few balls out of the backfield and take some speed sweeps with the starters before lining up at tailback in the 2nd half. 

In those early SEC contests, it has always been the speedback that breaks the game open for Malzahn. Look for him to be limited in over all carries against Miss St and LSU, but pick up some critical yardage. He may only have 7 carries for 55 yards, but don't be surprised if one of those is a 30-yard TD run or a 3rd and short swing pass TD from the 5. 

When the season firms up, one of two things can happen:

Down the stretch, I expect Gus to settle in on a single back. Meanwhile, the depth at WR should improve, which will make his offense a more direct attack that features vertical passing and an inside the guards running game to give it balance (I admit that it could be...and should be....run first). Lost among that will be the gamesmanship that Thomas will offer. 

Or

I admit that I could be totally wrong in that assumption....and that would be fine by me. If Thomas improves his pad level and patients in the hole, he could very well become that very guy. The point is this, he will get his opportunity early in the season. If A-day is any indication, he will get touches a plethora of ways. He could become such a gamebreaker that Gus can't afford to take him off the field. While the other two guys are vying for carries, he could make the most of it by showing out. 

In conclusion, most fans that I know consider Thomas a bit player, despite his obvious talent. If you were to look on paper, you would be forced to admit that he doesn't look that part of a traditional Auburn 3-down, smashmouth, pile mover. And, since Auburn will need one, he will be relegated to being a role player, certainly not the winner of the battle coming out of fall camp. Most people envision him as a 500 rush yards, 100 pass yards and some all-purpose kick return yardage. He might have 5 total TDs while one of the other two could possibly be another SEC yardage camp.

Yet, I think his skill set in combination with the battle for the 3 down back between the other two backs is a big time bonus for Thomas. At a minimum, he is going to get some touches early in the season, whether it is out of the backfield or via the pass. He will almost certainly get as many total touches as the other 2 guys, which really benefits him. And, if he makes the most of it, he could force Gus to forgo the battle between the other two and stick to a proven commodity.