Some of the greatest and most iconic players in Auburn history have been running backs. Under Gus Malzahn, running backs have been vital because of his strong preference to run the football. Once JaTarvious “Boobie” Whitlow, the team’s leading rusher the past two seasons, decided to transfer this offseason, it opened a competition for a new starter at the position.
Running backs coach Cadillac Williams has done a nice job of assembling a group of backs that are all talented but vary in primary skill sets. The variance in players’ size, speed and experience makes it difficult to predict who will be the main ball carriers this season.
Today, we look at the most productive returning player, a talented newcomer, and a wildcard at the running back position. The production of these players will have a huge impact on Auburn’s success in 2020.
Most productive returning player – D.J. Williams, 3, So.
Key 2019 stats – 84 carries, 400 yards rushing, 2 TDs
D.J. Williams played a key role as the backup tailback for Auburn in 2019 as a true freshman. He finished last season second in rushing yards and third in carries for the Tigers. Throughout the season, Williams proved to be capable of breaking tackles, protecting the football and gaining tough yards.
His biggest moment of the year was a 70-yard breakaway run against LSU. His greatest involvement was 24 carries in a win against Ole Miss. Williams was able to provide important depth at tailback throughout 2019, but will likely have to take a step forward to be the feature back in 2020.
Williams showed good consistency last year but didn’t flash quite as much big-play ability last season as star tailbacks in the SEC display. If D.J. Williams was able to use the offseason to become just a half-step faster with a little more burst, he may become the workhorse of the Auburn backfield this year.
Talented newcomer – Tank Bigsby, 4, Fr.
Key 2019 stats- Under Armour All-American, 1636 yards rushing, 27 TDs
Tank Bigsby is the most highly heralded running back Auburn has signed since Michael Dyer. The true freshman from LaGrange, GA, enrolled at Auburn in January with the hopes of making an impact right away in 2020. With the unexpected departure of Boobie Whitlow, there are a lot of carries now available that Bigsby hopes to take.
What stands out about Bigsby is that he has the size to run between the tackles and the speed to run away from most defenders. He played in a smaller division of Georgia high school football, but the vision, decisiveness and acceleration he displayed are likely to translate to success in college. Another strength of his game is his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. If that is something that Chad Morris wants to do more of this year, that could be an additional way for Bigsby to make plays.
There is no doubt that Bigsby will be in contention for carries this year, but he will have to prove his ability to protect the ball, pass block and other small things that often get overlooked in order to be the starter as a freshman. If Bigsby can master the small details of the position quickly, it may be a few years before Auburn has anyone else start at running back.
Wildcard – Mark-Antony Richards, 21, RFr.
Key 2019 stats- N/A, redshirt due to injury
Mark-Antony Richards arrived on the Plains from Wellington, FL, with rave reviews from recruiting analysts and even the Auburn head coach himself. When Richards signed with Auburn in 2019, Malzahn compared him to Kerryon Johnson … except a little bigger. If that is what Richards turns out to be, then Auburn fans should be excited.
Richards was forced to redshirt last season because of injuries but has been one of the most talked-about athletes by other players on the team this pre-season. His long, lean build and fluid athleticism is what draws the comparison to former All-SEC performer Kerryon Johnson. Another similarity between the two is the ability to catch the football much better than an average running back.
As long as Richards has fully recovered from his injuries, then there is no doubt he will factor into the plans for the Auburn backfield in 2020. If Richards can stay healthy and translate his performance from the practice field to the game field, then expect to see a new game-changer for the Tigers this season.
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Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @z_m_shaw