AUBURN — Much like the players he coaches, Tim Horton had to show his versatility. At Auburn for just three weeks, Horton had to change roles from tight ends coach to running backs coach on Jan. 25 following the departure of Rich Bisaccia to the Dallas Cowboys.
The change was natural for Horton, who has coached running backs for 12 years including the past six at Arkansas where he produced four different 1,000-yard rushers from 2007-10 including All-Americans Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. Scott Fountain was promoted from director of player personnel to tight ends coach as Gus Malzahn made a quick change to his staff.
“Really it was pretty seamless because during that point in time we were recruiting so much we weren’t X’s and O’ing as a tight end coach or a running back coach,” Horton said. “I feel probably more comfortable as a running back coach because I’ve done it about the last 10 years. I’m really excited about it and obviously when you have someone like coach Fountain on the staff as well to plug into the tight ends role and special teams role I think it’s going to work out very well.”
Horton inherits a thin running back corps following the graduation of Onterio McCalebb and the transfer of Mike Blakely. Only Tre Mason and Corey Grant return from last year’s squad and JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne is on campus and will be around for spring practice while signees Johnathan Ford and Peyton Barber won’t arrive until the summer.
“We don’t have the numbers that we would like to have right now at the true running back position. We’re looking at really only having five guys on the roster for the spring so obviously we want more than that,” Horton said.
“We need to keep them healthy in spring practice because our numbers aren’t quite what we would like them to be. Next spring at this time we’ll be in a little better shape because they’ll all be back and we’ll have (Ford and Barber).”
Mason was the workhorse of last year’s team, running for 1,002 yards on 171 carries with eight touchdowns while Grant had just nine carries for 29 yards. The inclusion of Artis-Payne in winter workouts and spring ball will help to lessen the load on Mason.
Horton called Artis-Payne, who ran for 2,048 yards and 25 touchdowns at Allan Hancock (Calif.) College last season, “focused.”
“He’s always early; he’s one of those guys that’s going to stay late. He wants to please you,” Horton said. “He’s really been impressive in terms of his attention to detail, not just as a football player but as a student. He’s given me a lot of reasons right now to trust him so I like that a lot.”
The message from Malzahn all the way through his staff has been about a “new day” and open competition for positions and playing time.
“We’re excited about Tre, we’re excited about the young backs we got coming in,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “We’re a team that runs the football quite a bit so it’s good to have quite a few backs you feel like can get it done.”
Horton said that edict applies to the incoming tailbacks as well, even though they won’t be on campus for spring ball.
“Johnathan Ford is someone who has great speed. He’s kind of a home-run hitter for us – he can go the distance at any time, really does some neat things on the perimeter,” Horton said. “(Barber’s) a terrific running back that really the inside zone play, some of the inside run stuff, is something that you see on video that he’s done very well.
“Both of them need to come in with the idea that ‘I’m coming to play and I’m coming to play right now. I’m not getting redshirting. I’m coming to help Auburn win football games right now and to contribute and to get on the field.’”
Fountain will take over a tight ends group which lost its leader in Philip Lutzenkirchen however C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse both got more experience last season when Lutzenkirchen’s season ended early due to hip surgery. Tight ends are utilized much more in the passing game in Malzahn’s system; Uzomah was a wide receiver two years ago.
“I think any time you talk receiver they all get excited,” Fountain said. “I think C.J. and Ricky Parks, Brandon Fulse, all have an opportunity to split outside, play in the box some. … I think they’re all excited about the word ‘versatility.’ Do a lot of different things. Those guys kind of made the offense go (in Malzahn’s tenure as offensive coordinator) in my opinion.”
Fountain will also handle special teams for the Tigers who have kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark both returning but the departure of McCalebb leaves an opening in the kick return game. While Auburn’s kickoff and punt coverage stats ranked among the best in the country last season, the Tigers were poor in punt returns.
“Probably our one area that we were weak in,” Fountain said of the punt return unit, which ranked 58th nationally with 8.94 yards per return. “We were pretty solid everywhere else.”
Quan Bray had 16 punt returns for 136 yards but struggled with ball security and recognizing when to call for a fair catch while Trovon Reed had two returns for 25 yards. Fountain said both Bray and Reed will be among the candidates for kickoff and punt returns and he’s heard from others who want to have a shot.
“I have a list and also have guys that are daily coming by to see me to kind of toot the horn and say ‘I can do this. I did it in high school,’” Fountain said. “I know those two can field the ball. We got to come up with some scheme to make them a little more productive after the catch, which the catch is the most important thing.”