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Auburn running back Kam Martin pulls his way past Louisiana Monroe cornerback Rhoy Williams. The Auburn Tigers played host to University of Louisiana Monroe Satruday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)

AUBURN — It should come as little to no shock that once again Gus Malzahn considers the running back position an open competition.

The Auburn head coach reiterated Saturday that he could foresee a lot of scenarios where any of the five running backs involved in spring practice could be the primary ball carrier this season. Malzahn, who will be entering his sixth season as Auburn's coach, said that he wants a preliminary depth chart set after the A-Day spring game next month.

However, in 2016 Auburn went in with Javon Robinson and Roc Thomas taking a majority of the first-team reps in preseason practice, but Peyton Barber, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, rushed for 115 yards in a season-opening win over Louisville in Atlanta.

In his career as a running backs coach, Auburn's Tim Horton has guided nine All-SEC running backs, nine 1,000-yard rushers and two of the SEC's all-time single season rushing leaders in Tre Mason (1,816) and Darren McFadden (1,830). His All-SEC players include Cameron Artis-Payne, Knile Davis, Kerryon Johnson, Felix Jones, Mason, McFadden, Kamryn Pettway, Michael Smith and Jonathan Williams.

After losing Johnson and Pettway to the NFL draft this winter, Auburn is back to having little experience and a youthful look at one of the most important positions in Malzahn’s offense.

“If you look at our history, every time we've had somebody step up and most times we've had two guys step up. We still feel the same (this spring),” Malzahn said Saturday. “The good thing right now is we've got some very talented running backs. We're going to let them compete and hopefully get an order by the time we leave spring. I really feel like we have multiple guys that can do the job it's just a matter of who can do the job the best.”

Part of that evaluation will begin this week when players begin to practice with shoulder pads. Coaches can find out which of the five players can effectively help the quarterback by pass-blocking with Auburn losing four starters on the offensive line.

“We need to get those guys tackled. We've got to see who can pass protect. We've got to see who can play without the ball,” Malzahn said. “I mean, it's wide open. We have more information on our two older guys. I know Coach Horton's going to let them compete. That's pretty exciting really, from my seat. Just in the spring let's see who can play and who's ready.”

The running back depth chart can be split into three distinct categories: returnees with game experience, returnees with no game experience and an early arrival ready for the spotlight.

The returnees with experience is the inside-outside combination of Malik Miller and Kam Martin. The speedy Martin, who had 453 rushing yards and averaged 6.12 per rush last season, was working with the first-team offense during the pace period of last week’s open media session. Miller, who is in more of the role of a bigger 225-, 230-pound version similar to Pettway, finished 2017 with just 135 yards on 34 carries.

“It’s very different,” Auburn H-back Chandler Cox said Saturday. “I look back, and I’m expecting (to see) Kerryon or Pettway.”

Devan Barrett, a former four-star prospect from Tampa, Fla., was used as a situational-type player as a true freshman as he quickly tried to learn the playbook.   

The returnees without any game experience are highlighted by redshirt freshman JaTarvious Whitlow. Whitlow, who is nicknamed "Bobbie," passed for 2,292 yards, 29 touchdowns while also rushing for 2,147 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior at LaFayette High while also being a track and field state champion in the long jump, triple jump, 200 meters and 400 meters. The 6-foot, 216-pound prospect signed with Auburn to play wide receiver and moved to running back after an injury-plagued initial college season.

“We saw that before he got hurt in fall practice and he made a couple of really good runs and you know, he did good in the offseason here,” Malzahn said. “I think he's got something to him, but I mean the rest of them, they do, too. The rest of them all have something to them, too.”

The X-factor in the running back competition is the 2017 Alabama Mr. Football. Asa Martin, a four-star prospect from Austin High in Decatur, was expected to compete for playing time once he arrived on Auburn’s campus. He enrolled this spring. Martin rushed for 2,228 yards and 33 touchdowns as an Austin senior last fall and surprised some by committing to Auburn in what is considered a heavy Alabama recruiting territory. Martin has already received comparisons to Kerryon Johnson, who was also a Mr. Football selection. As a freshman, Johnson had 208 rushing yards, 159 receiving yards and 386 kickoff return yards.

“He’s been terrific as well. Just kind of seeing him run at team practices, Mat drills, he’s more of a quiet guy,” Cox said. “Kind of like Kerryon was, more quiet, just puts his head down and works. So he’ll definitely help us out for sure this year.”