There was good news out of Auburn on Friday — good news for Auburn and good news for the local favorite who’s trying to turn expectations into reality there.
Oxford product Roc Thomas won’t have to carry a huge load as a true freshman running back at Auburn.
The 2013 Alabama Mr. Football and one of the stars of Auburn’s top 10 signing class in February won’t have to walk right in and become Tre Mason, the 2013 Heisman Trophy finalist who now gets his carries from the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.
Sure, we all wanted to see a generational high school player who played under home lights become an instant star in major college football. Thomas probably wanted that just as badly as anybody back home.
But the word out of Auburn’s camp is that seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are answering the challenge of Thomas, fellow true freshman Kamryn Pettway and redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. Rather than assume heir apparent entitlement, Artis-Payne and Grant became better football players since last season.
The two guys who rushed for more than 600 yards apiece behind Mason a year ago are up to carrying the load in Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up-and-run offense. Less experienced players won’t have to.
On the flip side, Malzahn said two of the three freshmen could see a role this season. Barring injury, Thomas and his classmates can develop without a senior’s share of the pressure.
It all means Auburn had good enough veteran players in the fold to withstand the loss of Mason.
It also means Auburn has depth at a position where much depth is needed, especially in an offense that generated 729 carries among 13 players in 14 games a year ago. The three running backs that played more regularly had 474 carries.
For Thomas, there’s time to adapt.
It seems strange to say that one of the nation’s top running back prospects a year ago would need time to adapt. After breaking as many as nine high school tackles in one play more than once, he would seem perfectly ready for college tacklers.
A guy who could squat in the 600-pound range and bench press more than 400 as a prep senior should be ready for college tacklers. Then again, a guy who lists at 5-foot-10 and 193 pounds on Auburn’s roster might need college tacklers in measured doses as a freshman
Having to carry the load he carried for Oxford a year ago took a toll. As physically superior as he looked most of the time, he also missed all or parts of five games with injuries. He watched the final seven minutes of Oxford’s second-round playoff loss to Bob Jones because of an injury.
Thomas plays a physical position, and now he plays it on the highest level of college football. His tacklers will either be or look like former Oxford teammate Kwon Alexander, now a 6-2, 227-pound linebacker in his third year in LSU’s program.
They have a way of stressing joints and muscles and knocking footballs loose, and they’re not fun to block in pass protection.
Getting carries without having to carry too much for a year is a win-win for Thomas and Auburn, even if he and those who have followed his career around here dreamed bigger.
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.