AUBURN -- It’s good to be number one.
If there’s a ranking for just about anything, football players and coaches want to be at the top, and Oxford's Racean Thomas was the proverbial king of the hill among in-state prospects last season.
A five-star prospect and Under Armour All-American, Thomas racked up 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns for Oxford en route to being named the state's high school Mr. Football.
He was the top running back on Auburn’s recruiting board.
“As coaches each you go through and say the No. 1 player in the country at this position in this guy. That’s the guy we need to get,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “Roc Thomas was the guy we wanted from day one.”
The Tigers got their guy. Thomas never wavered and showed loyalty by not taking any official visits elsewhere earned him profound respect from Malzahn and his staff.
So when will Roc be allowed to roll out onto the field and show off the moves he displayed on tape, the ones Malzahn called “sick” and “one of the more impressive games in person that I’ve even been around”?
Thomas joins a crowded Auburn backfield with senior Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant set to share the bulk of the carries and redshirt-freshman Peyton Barber third in line, not to mention Nick Marshall’s running abilities.
Unlike Barber, who was a clear redshirt candidate heading into last fall camp, the expectation across the program is for Thomas to contribute early, perhaps even as the first and the most productive freshman on offense.
“Roc, just like all the other freshmen, will get every opportunity to right away to show are they ready or not,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “How those guys respond usually dictates the level of load we give them early. We’ll have to see how he responds.”
It’s unrealistic to think the 5-foot-10, 193-pound Thomas will see his first action in the season opener against Arkansas, primarily because of the experienced players ahead of him.
But running backs coach Tim Horton knows too well how the best laid plans at the start of preseason practice can go up in flames by the start of the season. Horton recalled a time he lost four backs leading into the opener during his time at Arkansas.
“That’s a position where last year what happened is really unusual, in the sense that you give the ball to Tre Mason as much as you did and I don’t think he even missed a practice,” Horton said. “That doesn’t happen all the time. As a coach I think you got to prepare, you better have a plan B and a plan C.”
Few have the luxury of calling a player who averaged 9.8 yards per carry last season “the backup plan,” but Auburn finds itself in a fortunate predicament.
It’s simply a matter of when, not if, Thomas will be handed the ball.
“He’s got everything it takes,” Malzahn said. “He’s got great vision, he’s get great strength and then he’s got the elite speed that can really turn it on.”