Deciphering Auburn’s Running Back Group

By August 15, 2020ESPN 106.7 News

For the past two seasons, Boobie Whitlow led Auburn in rushing. A consistent bell cow behind a subpar offensive line, Whitlow finished with 787 yards rushing in 2018, and 763 in 2019. Kam Martin, a change-of-pace runner, tallied just under 800 yards for Auburn in that same span. Both of them have moved on; Martin graduated and Whitlow hit the transfer portal. Even without the pair, the Tigers are loaded with a deep running back room. Sophomore D.J. Williams, junior Shaun Shivers, redshirt sophomore Harold Joiner, redshirt freshman Mark-Antony Richards and Auburn’s No. 1 signee of 2020, Tank Bigsby, are all ready to stake their claim as Auburn’s lead ball carrier.

Who is most likely to be the Tigers’ lead rusher? Who has the most potential? Who will be the forgotten man in the crowded backfield? I expect it to be a collaborative effort, but here’s my breakdown of Auburn’s running backs for this year.

1. D.J. Williams

Williams has the most experience out of this group. Last year, he emerged as a potential lead back, rushing the ball 84 times for 400 yards. In limited games, Williams showed flashes of big play ability. Notably against LSU when he rushed for 130 yards and popped a 70-yarder on Auburn’s first drive of the second half. He’s the most complete back that the Tigers played last year and appears to have a loose grip on the feature role.

 

2. Shaun Shivers

Shivers is already an Auburn legend. Unforgettably,  on a jet sweep halfway through the fourth quarter of last year’s thrilling Iron Bowl victory, he bulldozed Alabama safety Xavier Mckinny, sending the defenders helmets into the air as he scampered into the end zone. Don’t let his 5’7, 179 pound frame fool you. Shivers has the power to pummel any defender, and the pace to leave them in the dust once he reaches the second level. Last year, he carried the ball 55 times for 286 yards and three touchdowns. Although he only carried the ball more than eight times twice, against Kent State and Samford, he averaged 6.1 and 8.5 yards-per-carry, respectively. When given the opportunity, Shivers has had proven results. He will never be the bell cow for the Tigers, but he’s poised to be a big weapon in 2020.

3. Tank Bigsby

The four-star recruit out of Hogansville, Georgia, is undeniably the Tigers most exciting prospect this season. Rated as the No. 4 running back in the 2020 class, Bigsby is the highest recruit at his position for Auburn since Roc Thomas in 2014. People have said that if it was he, not Williams, who ran the ball against LSU, then Auburn would have beat the eventual national champions in Baton Rouge last season. In high school, the Under Armour All American was sometimes patient to a fault. But, at 6’0, 210 pounds, and with a 4.55 40-yard-dash time, he already looks the part of an elite SEC back . His vision, shiftiness and pass catching ability must have Gus Malzahn sweating from the brim. And Tiger fans will fantasize about Bigsby becoming an every down back and the program’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Kerryon Johnson in 2017.

4. Mark-Antony Richards

A somewhat overlooked man at Auburn, Richards was the runner that Auburn fans were high on before Bigsby. However, Richards battled with injuries in his first season on the plains and was redshirted after undergoing leg surgery in the fall. As a player, he is far more similar to Johnson than Bigsby is. He has a certain elusiveness to his game and Gus Malzahn has praised his versatility. Rated as the nations No. 4 athlete in the country when he came out in 2018, Richards could benefit from lowered expectations. On the flip side, he could also be another overshadowed, underutilized back who Auburn loses to the transfer portal at years end.

5. Harold Joiner

Potentially Auburn’s most undervalued running back last season, Joiner carried the ball for 12 times for 94 yards, adding six receptions for 128 yards and a touchdown. Joiner mostly served as a pass-blocking back on obvious passing downs and flashed his ability to catch the ball on multiple occasions. Joiner could thrive in that niche again, but unfortunately, he doesn’t possess the same upside as the other guys already on this list. He could be the forgotten rusher for the Tigers in 2020.