Auburn spring in summary: Running backs

AUBURN, Alabama — Spring practice on the Plains is now officially in the rearview mirror, with Auburn wrapping things up over the weekend with the annual A-Day spring game.

Auburn’s staff, after a week or so of in-house player evaluations, will now look to the recruiting trail and the transfer portal, as the Tigers hope to add important pieces to the roster at a number of positions — both for the immediate 2022 squad and their 2023 recruiting class. But in the meantime, football will reach a pause as players finish out the semester at school, then get a month or so break from team activities until they’re back in the weight room this summer.

After moving past the drama of February for Bryan Harsin and the Auburn program — which the second-year head coach addressed head on and transparently at the start of the spring — the team’s 15 practices were underscored by the competition to replace Bo Nix at starting quarterback, and a slew of injuries on both sides of the ball.

And Auburn was breaking in new coordinators on both sides of the ball, plus four new assistant coaches. To the Tigers’ benefit, though, neither their base offense nor defense will be altered much from last season, as eric kiesau and jeff schmedding said there won’t be many discernable differences in what Auburn was running in 2021.

Due to the aforementioned injuries, some position groups — offensive line serving as the most affected — weren’t able to get fully under the microscope in spring ball, and will be a clearer picture in preseason camp. The same could be said in a less extreme sense of the QB room, which was missing a contender due to injury, as well.

So what did Auburn learn about each position this spring? Over the next week or so, Auburn Undercover will take a closer look and put each group’s spring in summary. Expect a new installation daily.

Next up is the focal point of Auburn’s offensive approach: the running backs.

There weren’t many groups on the roster more top heavy than the tailbacks in spring practice. Tank Bigsbythe SEC Freshman of the Year in 2020 and the program’s first 1,000-yard rusher in four years in 2021, could be the most talented player Auburn has, and the offense plans to take full advantage of that (more on that later).

But his complement in the backfield, sophomore Jarquez Hunter, missed most of the spring after a “cleanup” procedure on his knee. That means Bigsby’s backup was Sean Jacksona former walk-on who was awarded a scholarship in the third week of practice. Jordan Ingram rounded out the depth chart, giving Auburn only three available scholarship ball-carriers.

With Bigsby returning, a bevy of experience along the offensive line (once they’re all healthy) and at tight end, and a new starting quarterback set to take over this fall, it’s no surprise Auburn wants to lean on its running game.

“That’s music to my ears,” running backs coach Cadillac-Williams said this spring. “…When Auburn has won, go in the history books, we run the football, and we play great defense. I’m putting the challenge on my guys in my room: If they want to build this thing around this room, you will have to put it out — not just on Saturday, but Monday through Friday.”

Bigsby was a weapon last season, but his yards-per-carry numbers dropped heavily from his freshman campaign (6.0 to 4.9), and Auburn as an offense posted the No. 9 rushing average in the SEC, both by yards per game (161.2 ) and per carry (4.7).

And for the most part, the pieces that made up that production are all returning; the offensive line will have four of five starters back, and Auburn’s top two rushers should be identical to last season. The Tigers have to maximize Bigsby and take an assumed step forward from Year 1 to Year 2 in Harsin’s offense, or the Tigers could be in for even more scoring issues.

“That’s what Auburn’s identity should be; that’s who we want to be,” offensive line coach Will Friend said. “That’s who Coach Harsin wants to be — not just us as offensive coaches, but that’s what we want this program to be. I think we focus on that, but we’ve got to do our part. We all work together on that. Our job is to block and give those guys a chance to be physical.”

Speaking of Bigsby, his offseason, even in the brief months before spring, was not short on drama. Reports were that the junior was considering a transfer, although he never officially entered his name in the portal.

“Honestly, when all the reports came out that he was thinking about transferring or going — you know, first, I kind of wanted to understand why, the whole why behind it,” Williams said. “But with me it was just about with him, is this something you really want to do? I think at times these kids have a lot of people putting stuff in their head, a lot of people telling them X, Y, Z, a lot of people pulling at them.

“I think when it all came back down to it, Tank Bigsby loves Auburn. He loves being here. He has made a name for himself, and I truly think it was something that he never really, really wanted to do.”

Bigsby said part of Harsin’s pitch to ensure he stayed on for 2022 was how emphasized he would be on the offense — and not just as a ball-carrier.

“Coach Harsin got me everywhere,” Bigsby said. “You know, he got me in the slot receiver, running back — he got me just doing everything. He wants to get me the ball in the open field and do what I have to do.”

A-Day showed a glimpse of the versatility Auburn will try to tap into with Bigsby; he was targeted six times as a pass-catcher (31.8% of T. J. Finley‘s pass attempts), including three players where he split out wide.

In terms of rushing concepts, Auburn’s staff spoke often this spring about an emphasis on NFL film study, particularly for the running game.

“One of the guys that I show a lot and made a cut for them is Dalvin Cook,” Williams said. “Because we’re gonna run the mixed zone from under center, a lot of things. He was one of the guys I studied, a guy that I think does a really good job of it. And also have them watch Derrick Henry — he’s a guy that, on film, a guy who gets vertical and runs behind his pads. Bigguy. One-cut runner.

“Those are two of the guys, along with a lot more guys — but those are the two guys that I think, personally, Tank can put himself in the mindset of.”

Hunter rushed for 593 yards last season and should be healthy for fall camp. He and whomever emerges as the No. 3 running back — it should be a strong competition between Jackson, summer enrollee freshman Damaris Alstonand maybe redshirt sophomore Jordan Ingram — will be important to spell Bigsby and allow Auburn to properly spread carries and use Bigsby how it sees fit, and not how it’s forced to.

Jackson, a 5-foot-9, 230-pound bowling ball of a runner, worked with the second-team offense almost exclusively after Hunter was sidelined. After only appearing in mop-up duty last season, Harsin expects a rotational role for the former walk-on in 2022.

“He’s gonna play,” Harsin said. “That’s why we feel strongly about him. He does have really good hands. He’s been a good player for us so far.”

Ingram is a shifty player with the ball in his hands, but he carried the ball only twice last season after transferring from Central Michigan, and was surpassed by a walk-on once again this spring.

Depending on how quickly Alston, a three-star recruit from the Atlanta area, gets acclimated and comfortable running the ball in the preseason, he could also overtake Ingram on the depth chart and round out a rushing rotation that will feature Bigsby and Hunter prominently, and likely two others with a few touches per game.

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