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Who's your early pick for winner of the RB competition?
I think Shaun Shivers has a really good chance to earn the #1 spot very quickly. Reminds me a lot of how Tre Mason used to run.
— Andrew Stanley (@Standrew5998) February 14, 2018
AUBURN, Ala. — On Tuesday, the SEC Country preview of Auburn football’s spring practices continued with a look at the Tigers’ running backs for 2018.
The early depth chart had Kam Martin on top. It was mostly by default, as Martin will enter the season with the most experience of any running back after the departures of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway.
But Martin will likely never fully take over the No. 1 running back role that has been a staple under Gus Malzahn. Since 2013, Auburn’s top running backs have carried the ball 317, 303, 237, 209 and 285 times. It’s not impossible, necessarily, but it’s hard to imagine a 5-foot-10, sub-200-pound back such as Martin reaching those numbers in 2018.
Still, if the question is about an early pick to win the starting running back job, I’d go with Martin. I would bank on Martin being named the starting back for the Washington game on Sept. 1 because of his experience.
Martin sounds motivated to gain weight and prove his doubters wrong. In talking with him after the Peach Bowl, the Texan had every right to be frustrated and, honestly, considering a transfer. But his responses were impressive — he sounded like a player who knows his limitations but is confident in his potential.
The rest of Auburn’s running backs have their advantages. Malik Miller has that every-down frame if he gets back to the speed he had pre-injury. Devan Barrett can do it all. JaTarvious Whitlow has incredible burst and good size. Asa Martin, who enrolled early, has the potential to be a Day 1 starter.
But Martin is the safest bet. He ran extremely hard last season and has room to grow into a more durable back. Experience should serve him well.
If Martin is the No. 1 back in the fall, though, the carries would have to be split more than they have recently under Malzahn. And there’s a precedent here, both in Malzahn’s history and Chip Lindsey’s history.
In 2015, Lindsey was in his second season as the offensive coordinator at Southern Miss. He had both of his top running backs healthy all season and he split carries between them, despite their size and style differences.
- Ito Smith (5-9, 182 pounds): 12.21 rushing attempts per game
- Jalen Richard (5-8, 210 pounds): 14.23 rushing attempts per game
In 2016, Lindsey was at Arizona State. Again, he split carries evenly between his top two backs — who were closer in size than the ones he had at Southern Miss.
- Demario Richard (5-10, 219 pounds): 14.09 rushing attempts per game
- Kalen Ballage (6-2, 227 pounds): 10.50 rushing attempts per game
Consider this hypothetical: What if Johnson and Pettway were both healthy for the entire 2017 season? Johnson wouldn’t be SEC Player of the Year because there’s enough in Lindsey’s history to suggest their attempts would have been close to even. After all, Malzahn and Lindsey referred to the two as co-starters at running back right before the season opener.
Finding someone to complement Martin would be the best bet for Auburn’s running back system in 2018. It’s hard to imagine the Tigers splitting carries three ways, such as what Georgia did with Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift last season. But two, with spells from others, sounds reasonable.
And there is a precedent here with Malzahn, especially when it comes to smaller backs. In 2010, Auburn had two key backs — Onterio McCalebb and Michael Dyer. They were completely different in size and style, but they each played a role in Auburn’s run to the national title.
- Onterio McCalebb (5-10, 171 pounds): 6.79 rushing attempts per game
- Michael Dyer (5-9, 215 pounds): 13 rushing attempts per game
Martin is heavier than McCalebb was, and Jarrett Stidham won’t be Cam Newton when it comes to rushing attempts. However, it’s easy to see how Auburn could use Martin like McCalebb and find a more all-around back to take the bulk of the carries.
While McCalebb — who started the 2010 opener — got nearly half as many carries that season as Dyer, he had only 283 fewer rushing yards. McCalebb averaged 8.53 yards per carry. Martin averaged 7.27 and 6.12 yards per touch in his first two seasons with the Tigers. There’s a similar big-play threat there.
The rest of Auburn’s running backs have the potential to take over that Dyer-like role in 2018. (Shaun Shivers, according to his own words, will most likely play a role similar to Barrett in 2017 if he sees the field as a freshman.)
How would that look in terms of carries per player? The sweet spot probably is somewhere between the near 50-50 split Lindsey had in his last two stops and the difference in the 2010 running backs.
It would be a departure from Malzahn’s style since he became head coach, but it’s not completely out of the question.
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