AUBURN — One of the most coveted running backs in the country last year, Roc Thomas will make his highly anticipated Auburn debut when the No. 6/5 Tigers host Arkansas on Saturday.
Thomas is listed as the No. 3 kick returner behind Corey Grant and Ricardo Louis. Tigers coach Gus Malzahn only listed Cameron Artis-Payne and Grant as co-starters at tailback on the depth chart, but Thomas and redshirt-freshman Peyton Barber are both vying to be next in line there as well.
“We really don’t have a who’s No. 3 or who’s No.4, we have specific things that we feel both of those guys can do well,” Malzahn said.
But can Thomas challenge Artis-Payne and Grant, established seniors who each ran for 600 yards and six touchdowns last season, for playing time this season? Artis-Payne all but rolled his eyes at the notion.
“I don’t know about that, you’re going to have to ask the coaches about that,” Artis-Payne said. “I’m not worried about that. I’m just worrying about trying to do what I need to do.”
That’s not to say Artis-Payne doesn’t see Thomas’ talents, he’s just not ready to call him a threat for the starting job.
“He’s really good. Explosive, he’s quick, he has good speed, he’s everything he’s advertised to be,” Artis-Payne said. “He’ll be a real good player here, I know that.”
Thomas, who has not been available for interviews, ran for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns on his way to being named Alabama Mr. Football last year. The five-star prospect has lived up to the hype during the month of practice, leaving no questions as to why he was No. 1 on Auburn’s recruiting board at running back last season.
“Roc Thomas is everything we thought when we recruited him,” Malzahn said during the Tiger Talk radio program on Monday. “You put the ball in his hands and he can do some special things. He’s really caught on to the offense good for a freshman. Roc, he has that B button, you know that video game B button, he can really turn and twist and keep balance and all that. He’s got good speed, too.”
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee doesn’t have any reservations about playing Thomas, whom he’s called an “all-around back,” or Barber as soon as Saturday.
“(We) feel good about those guys, but there is just a lot of unknown until they play,” Lashlee said. “Really, with freshmen, when their time comes you’ve got to throw them in there and let them figure it out. … We feel like they’re as prepared as they can be to hold onto the football. That’s the No. 1 thing you worry about.”