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SPRING FOOTBALL POSITION PREVIEWS: Running Backs

The biggest win of Harsin’s tenure so far gets covered here.

NCAA Football: Texas A&M at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past couple of days, we’ve taken a look at some positions on Auburn’s football team that will have a huge impact on how things go in 2021. With quarterback, the Tigers are looking for marked improvement, and with the linebackers, Auburn will be hoping that a scheme shift and help up front continues to pay dividends for some of the best players in the SEC.

Instead of stressing about things that might or might not happen, let’s enjoy the labors of a hard week and look at what will happen with a position that we all know and love. Bryan Harsin’s biggest win so far is arguably contained here. When he cobbled together a staff, the holdovers were few and far in between, but one remaining coach paid off in spades.

Keeping Cadillac Williams as the running backs coach allowed Harsin to snag his biggest recruit before making a call to a high school player. With Cadillac remaining, Tank Bigsby decided to stay in the fold as well. As far as players transferring from the team go, there really was only one absolute must-keep talent, and that’s Tank.

Bigsby burst onto the scene last year as one of the SEC’s top tailbacks as a true freshman, and his talent was evident even during a terrible night in Athens. While the offense sputtered, you could see Tank doing literally everything he could to evade Bulldog defenders. His skill was immediately visible, and he followed that game up with three straight 100-yard performances. Defenses eventually sold out to stop him, and an injury against Tennessee limited him until the last game of the season, where he exploded for 192 yards in the win over Mississippi State.

He explored the options to leave Auburn with rumors that Cadillac Williams possibly leaving the coaching staff, but he remained on the team with his coach, and he’ll be the focal point of an offense that’ll be new for the rest of the SEC to defend. The opportunities for him are endless, but Auburn needs him to stay healthy to make it happen.

RUNNING BACKS

THE GUYS

Projected Starter: Tank Bigsby - SO - 6’0, 204

  • Career Stats: 138 carries, 834 yards, 6.0 ypc, 5 TDs
  • Other Contributors: Shaun Shivers - 62 carries, 276 yards, 4.5 ypc, 1 TD; Devan Barrett - 14 carries, 79 yards (no carries since 2017)
  • Biggest Question: Can Auburn do what it needs to with an extremely thin running back rotation?

While Auburn might have the best pure running back it’s had since Cadillac Williams, the Tigers aren’t enjoying the spoils of a deep running back room. Losing D.J. Williams (to Florida State) and Mark-Antony Richards (to UCF with Gus Malzahn) hurts the Tigers in that there are very few folks to spell Bigsby, and we really don’t have anyone that can be that every down back aside from him.

Shaun Shivers will always be a folk hero and should never pay for a Momma G’s nacho basket ever again, but he’s sadly just not the kind of tailback that can carry the load that Auburn might need this season. He’s strong, and can provide the change of pace, but this might be a fantastically heavy season for Tank. Aside from Shivers, Devan Barrett hasn’t carried the ball since a three-yard loss against UCF in the Peach Bowl. He’s a talented guy, but there’s a reason he switched to defensive back and couldn’t beat out Boobee Whitlow in the rotation (who never was the most special tailback). Despite plenty of practice this spring, Barrett will likely take a little time to become accustomed to carrying the ball again after a year on the defensive side of the ball.

Other than those two, Auburn should bring in Jarquez Hunter in the fall, but he’ll likely be counted on as a last resort. I’m sure he’ll get carries, and try to keep the pressure off of Tank in some of the easier non-conference games and if the Tigers happen to be enjoying a large lead. All in all, that means that Auburn will be leaning on the Tank.

And is that a problem? Absolutely not. 2020’s SEC Freshman of the Year could make a campaign for even larger awards if things can shake out in his favor in terms of health and a couple of units around him coming together nicely. Kerryon Johnson carried the ball 285 times in 2017. Peyton Barber had 238 carries in 2015. Cameron Artis-Payne had 303 carries in 2014, while Tre Mason posted 317 carries in 2013. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tank get close to what Mason did in 2013 on the way to a conference championship. If he stays healthy, he ought to be the focal point of an offense that’ll be finding itself in other areas. Bo Nix has some vast improvement to make, and we’ll be breaking in new receivers across the board. It’s Tank’s chance to shine.

Auburn needs a little luck in 2021 to have the kind of season that would satisfy most in Harsin’s first season, but maybe some of the magic on he and Bobo’s part will be to figure out ways to manage the offense and the pitch count for a guy like Tank. We’ll need him more than nearly anyone else if we want to have a chance to compete with the big opponents on our schedule.