Tre Mason, Jay Prosch
Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant
Peyton Barber, Roc Thomas, Kamryn Pettway, Jakell Mitchell
Causes for optimism:
It's Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee calling the plays of the power-running, down-hill attack to set up passing. It's a stable of running backs with a ton of proven talent and a lot of potential talent with a proven running QB to lead them. Corey Grant could set records at the NFL Combine last year. I know his sub-4.2 time on the 40 yard dash was hand-timed, but even accounting for adjusted time, it's likely he's sub-4.3. And that's elite-level speed. Cameron Artis-Payne showed flashes of brilliance in his time on the field last year. He's elusive and able to make quick cuts. He's also a likely candidate for some wild-cat plays such as he ran on occasion last season.
Then there are the newcomers. Tre Mason said Peyton Barber was his equal in terms of talent. He looked great on his one run during the A-Day game right up until the fumble and injury. Roc Thomas was a 5* recruit who will likely contribute immediately. My hope is to have a 2010-type situation. Wear the defense down with the starting trio of Marshall, CAP, and Corey Grant. Then start feeding the rock to Barber or Thomas or Kamryn Pettway (who at 6'0", 239 lbs is a BEAST) in the second half and completely destroy their souls. Mike Dyer was excellent at this as a freshman when he was put in the game late to batter an already weary defense.
Notice that in the "losses" category I included Jay Prosch. I'm accounting for him as a fullback in this case, even though he really didn't play in that roll under Malzahn. He was an H-back, which I covered yesterday in the Wide Receivers/TEs preview. I didn't list him as a "key loss" there because even though he was an "H-back," he still filled a more traditional fullback roll. Prosch is going to be very hard to replace. With Gage Batten likely out for the season and Patrick Young suffering a likely career-ending injury, there is really no one who can fill that role. Brandon Fulse is likely going to be given the job of filling Prosch's roll this season. True-freshman Jakell Mitchell has had a good camp and could be the go-to in the future, but right now he's still a bit undersized for the position at 218 lbs. Give him a year in Ryan Russell's strength and conditioning program and that will likely change.
I don't really have much in the way of concerns for the running backs or Auburn's run game with the exception of the loss of Jay Prosch. As long as these running backs don't all develop fumbilitis, I think Auburn will again show why it's Running Back University.
UPDATED: There was a tweet earlier hinting that Braden Smith is working at the FB position. I predicted in the OL preview that Smith could see the field in an eligible number similar to what Shon Coleman did last year. I still think it's likely this will be limited in use, but still... WOW. Can you imagine someone with Smith's size and strength as a FB?
Next up: Quarterback