The big issue for Auburn at running back heading into 2021 will be the development of depth after two running backs announced that they would not be returning to Auburn even though all had the option available.
Running backs coach Cadillac Williams said that the lack of depth in the room will need to be met with hard work for all of the newcomers.
“I’m looking for every guy in that room to get better each day,” said Williams. “From the classroom to the way we lift weights to the practice field, we want to win the day.”
Auburn may only return two scholarship running backs from last season, but the two they return have been some of the most consistent players on the Tigers' offense the past few seasons. Shaun Shivers will return to the Plains for his senior season after providing significant help in the run game over the past three seasons, even starting many games last year. He has rushed for 933 yards and seven touchdowns in his career and his 5-foot-7 height provides a low center of gravity, allowing Shivers to deliver punishing hits.
This season, Shivers has had to adjust to a new offense and a new style of running, but that style according to Shivers, is very welcome.
“It's a little different. It's more downhill and more attacking the defense,” said Shivers. “This is the type of offense I fit in. Just get me downhill. I just think this is the best offense for me and just show what I can really do.”
Coach Williams also emphasized the physicality of the new offense under Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who plans to run some plays under center in a more traditional I-form attack this season.
“We want to bring that mentality that we will be a physical downhill running room,” said Williams. “It starts with your mentality so we want to bring that every day.”
Shivers also mentioned that the loss of Mark-Antony Richards and D.J. Williams, the two former backup running backs, has been felt by him but that the mentality is next man up.
“It does feel different," he said. "It's like 'man, my boy is gone,' but you just have to fill in for them.”
Another bright spot for the running back room, despite personnel losses, has been the retention of coach Williams on Harsin's staff. While Williams said that the transition wasn’t easy, he has enjoyed the change.
“It was tough and I think the toughest thing about it was the uncertainty once Alan (Greene) decided to go that different direction,” said Williams. “The sky's the limit with coach Harsin and this staff. He is a hard-nosed coach who believes in discipline and building young men not just on the field but off as well. He is demanding but not demeaning.”
Shivers mentioned the difficult transition that occurred initially but said that the team has adopted Harsin’s mentality by this point in the spring.
“Everybody was in panic mode," he said. "But I was talkin' to everybody and just telling them to give coach Harsin a chance. It may be better; it may be worse, but at the very least you have to give him a chance ... but now we’ve known coach Harsin for a while, so we all hold each other accountable and do the right thing as a program should.”
A key returner for the Tigers alongside Shivers will be sophomore Tank Bigsby, who exploded onto the scene as a freshman last season and quickly became the most stable part of the Auburn offense. In just his first year of college football, Bigsby rushed for 834 yards and five touchdowns along with 84 yards receiving. Bigsby’s 834 yards was second-most in program history for a freshman back, only behind Michael Dyer’s 1,093 in 2010 and edging Bo Jackson’s 829 yards. Bigsby was also awarded SEC Freshman of the Year.
Despite his early success, Bigsby has not reached his potential according to Williams.
“He is a guy that right now doesn’t say much but he is a guy that works hard," he said."He just has to be consistent and bring it each and every single day. If he continues to enjoy the journey, Tank will be okay.”
Williams also mentioned Bigsby’s ability to be a complete running back, someone who can catch, run and block, and that is something the running back room will need moving forward.
“To play in this offense, you’re gonna need to be a complete back," said Williams. "Everybody in that room has pretty good hands; it's just working on routes.”
Auburn got some help with depth during the offseason with the return of Devan Barrett, who moved back to his original position after playing defensive back and after opting out for the 2020 season due to the pandemic.
The Tigers will also welcome three-star back Jarquez Hunter, a back out of Neshoba Central in Mississippi who plans to arrive this summer.
The Tigers will look to continue developing their running back room as spring practice comes to a close and fall inches closer.
A-Day will be held in of Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m.