No. 6 Auburn may tweak some things to get up and running
By JOHN ZENOR
Auburn constructed a formidable ground game on quarterback runs and seemingly tireless tailbacks the past two seasons.
The sixth-ranked Tigers could be tweaking that formula this season, especially with quarterback Jeremy Johnson likely to pass more and run less than predecessor Nick Marshall. Another big difference: Talented but unproven running backs.
Roc Thomas will start Saturday's opener against Louisville in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, but coach Gus Malzahn expects fellow sophomore Peyton Barber and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson to play. Freshman Kerryon Johnson could also get on the field.
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"One of the things that we've talked about is that (we) might not have a guy like Cameron Artis-Payne, who had 350 touches last year," Tigers running backs coach Tim Horton said. "Can Roc Thomas take 350 touches? Probably not. I think we're going to have to divvy it up and distribute it a little more but at the same time that kind of remains to be seen. We'll see how it all plays out.
"I think ultimately this group will be one of the strengths of our team because we've got four quality runners that can play."
The 5-foot-11, 203-pound Thomas and 6-foot, 230-pound Robinson are both former five-star prospects. Thomas only had 43 carries last season behind Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. He didn't get another carry after losing a fumble on the first play against Alabama in the regular-season finale to set up a quick touchdown.
Robinson, who enrolled in January, was the 2013 NJCAA national player of the year after setting national junior college records with 2,387 yards, 34 touchdowns and 204 points for Georgia Military College. He got off to a slow start in preseason camp, according to coaches.
Barber has frequently drawn praise from coaches but had only 10 carries as a redshirt freshman.
"All three have earned the right to play, but Roc will be the first one out there," Malzahn said. "You're going to see us play all three of them, and we've got some question marks as coaches. We want to see them in game situations now, and hopefully someone will rise to the top. (Robinson) is still learning the offense but he can run the ball. He'll be out there the first game of the season, too, and we'll see what happens."
A go-to runner has emerged each of the past two seasons alongside Marshall.
Artis-Payne led the Southeastern Conference in rushing last season and had 84 more carries than runner-up Nick Chubb of Georgia. In 2013, Tre Mason topped the league in rushing and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. His 317 runs were more than 100 better than anybody else in the league, and Auburn became the first SEC team to lead the nation in rushing.
Marshall also ran for nearly 1,900 yards the past two seasons.
The Tigers' new runners face a tough opening challenge. Louisville did have to replace seven starters from a defense that ranked 10th in yards allowed last season after leading the nation the previous year.
The front seven especially still looks strong, led by defensive end Sheldon Rankins and linebackers James Burgess and Keith Kelsey.
"I think defensively we need to stop the run," Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino said. "They have always done a great job running the football and working hard on the tempo. They go fast so we've got to be able to get lined up, get the call and play our technique within the call at a very fast pace so that is what we have been working real hard at.
"Then when we do force them to throw the ball, we have to put pressure on the young quarterback, give him different looks and make him not exactly see what the coverages will be."