When Auburn’s first-year running backs coach met with reporters during preseason camp, he acknowledged the depth at the position was a bit more “than I’ve been used to.” Yes, the same man who coached the likes of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis, Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson at Arkansas said this year’s Tigers were as deep a unit as he has seen. He was confident it wouldn't stay that way for long.
Depth is always a fleeting matter, especially in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference.
“One thing about playing running back in this league is you never have enough depth,” he said. “Because about the time you’re feeling pretty good -- ‘Hey, we’ve got four or five guys’ -- the next thing you know, two of them are gone and you have no depth. You’re trying to move a defensive player over there.”
Ironically, the opposite has occurred.
With returnees Tre Mason and Corey Grant along with junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and true freshman Peyton Barber, it wasn’t an issue to move Johnathan Ford to defense to combat the lack of bodies at cornerback.
“He's a phenomenal running back, but we need help in the secondary,” head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “You've got to have depth in the secondary. He played some in high school, and he's off to a good start.”
Ford’s temporary conversion didn’t affect the coaching staff’s view of the running back position. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee touted the options they have with the trio of Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant.
“We've said that since the spring. It's kind of a broken record, but really all three of those guys bring something different to the table for us and I think all three are going to play and probably play a good amount,” he said. “There's some good versatility there.”
Those three won’t get every carry, however. Barber showed Lashlee enough during preseason practice that the true freshman will get his fair share of snaps as well.
“Barber is a guy that, from a physical standpoint, we feel is ready to play,” he said. “It's just a matter of (him being) a true freshman. But you know, when certain moves happen, that will thrust people up quicker than normal. He's got to be ready to go. At this point the three older guys are there, but he's got to be on high alert.”
Whenever he returns to offense, Ford should be able to jump right back into the running back rotation. Lashlee compared him favorably to Grant because of his speed and ability to make plays in space, an important component of the Tigers’ hurry-up, no-huddle system.
“They’re really fast guys,” Lashlee said. “Corey is bigger. He’s a junior and has been in college longer. I think Rudy is one of those guys, when he gains 10, 12 pounds over the next year or two, it will really help him. But he can really run. More than anything, there’s no fear.”
Horton said he has seen more than that from Ford and Barber, though. Their love of the game shines through, he said. From poring over the playbook to putting in extra work at practice, there are certain things that can’t be coached.
That innate inner drive sets the duo apart, and Horton couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve been real pleased with their attitudes and their efforts,” he said. “And if they’ve got a good attitude and they’ve got good effort, then we can work with them from there.”