Auburn

Auburn’s JaTarvious Whitlow (28) runs into the end zone for a touchdown against Arkansas.

AUBURN — JaTarvious Whitlow didn’t score during Wednesday’s scrimmage. He tried to, of course. He told Auburn’s first-team defense that he wanted to reach the end zone. He told his teammates on the other side of the ball to let him in.

“But they don’t want me to get in there,” Whitlow said.

That’s OK. Whitlow’s confidence isn’t shaken. There isn’t much that would do that, anyway — this is a kid who played quarterback at nearby LaFayette High, came to Auburn as a three-star wide receiver who didn’t have a committable offer until the night before National Signing Day 2017 and went on to lead the team in rushing as a redshirt freshman last year anyway.

“Boobee” believes this season is going to be better, too. Not just for him, but for all of Auburn’s running backs.

“RB U back, that’s all I got to say,” Whitlow said, unprompted, on Wednesday. “RB U is back.”

Auburn has had a claim to that “Running Back U” moniker for a long time. There was Joe Cribbs and James Brooks in the 1970s; Bo Jackson and Brent Fullwood in the 80s; James Bostic and Stephen Davis in the 90s; Rudi Johnson, Ronnie Brown, Cadillac Williams, Kenny Irons and Ben Tate in the 2000s; and Michael Dyer, Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson since 2010.

One of those many 1,000-yard backs and future NFL players, Williams, is now the program’s running backs coach.

“For him to coach us, him giving us knowledge of the game,” senior Kam Martin said, “it means a lot.”

“Coach ’Lac,” as his players call him, takes over a room that failed to live up to that moniker last season. The 2018 team was the first since 2008 not to produce a 1,000-yard rusher, snapping a nine-year streak. Whitlow’s team-leading 787 yards were the lowest total since Tate rushed for 664 that year. Auburn’s 3.9 yards per carry against FBS teams was the worst mark of Gus Malzahn’s tenure as either offensive coordinator or head coach.

That wasn’t entirely the fault of one position group, of course. The offensive line struggled to find its footing throughout the early part of the season. The offense as a whole never truly found its rhythm until a Music City Bowl rout of Purdue, when Malzahn publicly resumed play-calling duties for the first time since the 2016 season. But the running backs heard some of the criticism that was out there.

“I’ll be pissed off with everybody saying that the running backs are the weak link and stuff like that,” Martin said. “We’re going to show them. We’ve been working hard.”

So, back to what Whitlow was saying, that Auburn believes it can be “RB U” again this season. There are two primary reasons behind that belief. One, that offensive line expects to be significantly better this season after returning five fifth-year senior starters in Prince Tega Wanogho, Marquel Harrell, Kaleb Kim, Mike Horton and Jack Driscoll.

Those five players have 104 starts between them, which leads the SEC and ranks 12th nationally, according to Phil Steele. The other three times over the last decade that the Tigers have returned at least 70 starts on the offensive line (2010, 2013 and 2017), they ranked fifth, second and 21st nationally in rushing offense, respectively.

“Them guys hungry. Them guys real hungry,” Whitlow said of the offensive line. “I know, I can feel them. You know how you get that feeling about a person that got a vision? Them boys got that vision. I’m just ready to see what they’re going to do against Oregon.”

Two, the Tigers have both depth and experience at running back. Much more than they had at this time last year, when they were preparing to replace the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year (Johnson) and the SEC’s leading rusher in 2016 (Pettway) with Martin and a trio of freshmen (Whitlow, Shaun Shivers and Asa Martin, the latter of whom has since transferred twice).

Even with true freshman Mark-Antony Richards sidelined after undergoing surgery on his right leg last week, Auburn has six players who it could conceivably hand the ball off to Aug. 31 in Arlington, Texas.

There is Whitlow, a 6-foot, 210-pound feature back who would have had a real shot to reach the 1,000-yard plateau last season had he not gotten hurt in the fourth quarter of a 170-yard day against Ole Miss on Oct. 20; and Martin (458 yards in 2018), a 5-foot-10, 189-pound change of pace who has averaged 410 yards per season and 5.6 yards per carry over the course of his three-year career. They’re the ones expected to lead the charge.

There is also Shivers (371 yards), an explosive 5-foot-7 playmaker who is having a standout fall camp despite missing all of spring practice while he focused on track; junior Malik Miller (68 yards), an experienced 5-foot-11, 235-pound bruiser who had maybe the best run of Wednesday’s scrimmage; redshirt freshman Harold Joiner (9 yards), a true wildcard with the size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), speed and versatility to be a factor in both the run and pass game; and true freshman D.J. Williams, who had maybe the most impressive performance of all of them during the spring game with 57 yards on 11 carries.

“If one of us goes down, we don’t have to worry about the next person,” Whitlow said. “We ain’t got to have the coaches worried — like, he’s going to know how to do his assignment, he’s going to know what to do. That’s a good thing. I can get out, Kam can come in. Kam can go out, Worm (Shivers) can come in. He’s going to keep pounding them, pounding them, pound and pound. They ain’t going to ever stop. He going to keep getting work no matter who goes back there.”

Martin agrees with Whitlow’s assessment of the team’s depth. “You gotta come every day with your A-Game, because you got guys that’s hungry,” he said. “When one guy’s on the field we all support him.”

As to whether “RB U” is back, like Whitlow said it is, Martin reserved judgement. “We’re going to see,” he said. “We ain’t going to say none of that right now. We’re just going to keep straining, keep getting better, finish off this fall camp, and you know, go to work.”

But Auburn’s backs are working. They have stayed after practice to do extra conditioning as they prepare for the offense to play at a faster pace this season. Malzahn has put them through ball-security drills when they’re “dead tired and don’t want to do it,” Whitlow said, so they’re not careless with the ball when games begin.

Unlike his senior teammate, Whitlow, a sophomore, doesn’t need to see any more. Again: he doesn’t lack confidence.

“We got the best O-line in the country, we got the best two quarterbacks in the country and we got the best running backs in the country. That’s all I got to say,” he said, stopping himself briefly before launching in again. “We got the best receiver corps in the country. We got the best defensive line in the country, the best cornerbacks in the country. Who you going to stop?”

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