Auburn identifies frontrunner for starting running back job
Updated 6:59 PM;Posted 6:48 PM
By Tom Green
The picture in Auburn's backfield is becoming somewhat more clear.
The Tigers, who entered spring with five scholarship running backs competing for the starting job, haven't quite narrowed down the competition as offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey had hoped to at the end of spring, but there is a leader in the clubhouse as the Tigers head into the offseason.
"If we were to play today it would be Kam Martin," Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said Thursday before speaking to the Jackson County Auburn Club in Scottsboro. "He would be the first one to go out on the field. Obviously we don't play today and so is he going to start against Washington? That kinda remains to be seen but Kam would be first-team if we played today."
Lindsey said last month that the hope was for the Tigers to establish a pecking order at running back upon the completion of spring practices. Following review of the A-Day game on April 7 and the final practice of spring on April 10, Horton wasn't ready to rattle off a top three and left open the possibility for the Tigers to take a by-committee approach to the position this fall.
The veteran assistant was also hesitant to name a No. 2 running back behind Martin at this time, adding that he has been "really pleased" with the entire group, which includes Martin, Malik Miller, JaTarvious Whitlow, Asa Martin, Devan Barrett and even walk-on C.J. Tolbert, who was the A-Day offensive MVP.
"If we had to play today it would probably be situational football," Horton said. "There's one guy that's probably a better pass protector. There's one guy who is probably a better runner. There's one guy who might be a better pass receiver out of the backfield. It would be very situational in the sense that whatever the down and the distance and the situation dictates."
Martin was long expected to be in the mix for the starting job following the departures of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway. The junior is Auburn's most experienced running back, having rushed for 773 yards and five touchdowns in a backup role over the last two seasons.
The 5-foot-10, 182-pounder was Auburn's second-leading rusher last season, finishing the year with 453 yards and a pair of touchdowns while averaging an impressive 6.12 yards per carry. Martin saw plenty of time with the first-team offense this spring but was held out of the spring game due to a minor hamstring injury.
Horton said Thursday that if it were the regular season, Martin probably would have missed the opener but would have been available by Week 2 or Week 3. Martin has been a full participant in the team's offseason workouts, which began this week.
Whitlow was perhaps the Tigers' most impressive running back behind closed doors this spring. The redshirt freshman out of LaFayette received rave reviews from teammates, who compared watching him run to watching "Madden" video game highlights due to his ability to reverse field and keep plays alive.
The 6-foot, 216-pound Whitlow is built more in line with the type of running back Auburn has relied on in years past under Malzahn, and the former three-star prospect -- who played quarterback in high school and signed with Auburn as a receiver -- excelled on A-Day. He rushed for 98 yards on 14 carries while displaying solid vision and elusiveness in the open field.
Miller is Auburn's second-most experienced running back, with 50 career carries for 204 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was lauded as a "steady force" in the backfield by Lindsey this spring, and he started with the first-team offense on A-Day. His spring game was cut short due to a knee injury after recording just three carries for 1 yard and a fumble.
Asa Martin is a true freshman who enrolled early this semester after winning Alabama's Mr. Football award as a senior in high school, and Barrett saw the field in a limited capacity last season and split time at running back and receiver late in the spring.
Auburn is looking for five criteria in evaluating its running back situation, according to Horton.
"Can they protect the ball? Can they protect the passer? Are they going to miss assignments; do they know what to do? No. 4: Attitude, effort and body language; how do they present it? And then the last thing, and really the most important thing, at least in this competition for me is who can make a play? Who can go make the play?" Horton said. "That's where, hopefully, we'll continue to find guys who can create separation and make more plays, but that's kind of what we're looking for. Each one of them have done those things, but at this point I think Kam would be the first one."
Horton would feel comfortable playing multiple running backs this season and wouldn't be surprised if it took a couple of games to establish a No. 1 option in the backfield.
"We've had success playing multiple players but sometimes the cream rises to the top and one just kinda separates themselves," Horton said. "That's really what's happened the last two years."