Auburn football: Why you should expect Tank Bigsby to live up to his name in 2021

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

One of the best days of this offseason for any Auburn football fan was Jan. 8. All it took was one was one social media post.

A photo of Tank Bigsby stiff-arming an LSU defender, posted to his Instagram story. The caption: “Ready for next year.”

Bigsby made the post hours before Auburn announced that Cadillac Williams would return as the team’s running backs coach and after a week of rampant speculation about the star rusher’s future with the program. Message boards and Twitter were flooded with rumors that Bigsby might transfer after the coaching change. Were any of them true? Only Bigsby could say for sure. Regardless, fans were worried.

Now, they’re no doubt excited. Bigsby is a special talent. The former four-star recruit from LaGrange, Georgia, earned SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2020. He rushed for 834 yards, which is 5 more than Bo Jackson totaled in his freshman year in 1982 and the second-most all-time for a freshman in program history behind only Michael Dyer (1,093 in 2010).

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And there’s a very good chance that ends up being his floor – Bigsby’s ceiling feels like it could be as high as any Auburn running back since Williams, who rushed for 3,831 career yards (second all-time) before getting selected No. 5 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft.

“You’ve got to have confidence playing in this league,” Bigsby said after the Tigers’ Dec. 12 win over Mississippi State to end the regular season. “I’m very confident in myself.”

There’s reason for him to be confident in Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo, too. Auburn’s new head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, are quarterback developers by trade, but the offenses they’ve run throughout their careers have often highlighted prolific running backs.

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Harsin became an offensive coordinator for the first time at Boise State in 2006, and Bobo at Georgia in 2007. Harsin has had a 1,000-rusher in 10 of the last 15 seasons, and Bobo in four of the nine seasons he’s spent in the SEC.

You might recognize a lot of the names – Ian Johnson (twice), Jeremy Avery, Doug Martin, Jay Ajayi, Jeremy McNichols (twice), Alexander Mattison (twice) and George Holani at Boise State; and Knowshon Moreno (twice), Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb at Georgia. Eleven of those 15 seasons saw that leading rusher score double-digit touchdowns. Six of those 10 players went on to receive a significant number of NFL carries.

Bigsby is still two years away from being able to do that, but it’s not hard to envision him getting there. The physical 6-foot, 204-pound freshman broke more tackles than any SEC running back not named Najee Harris last season. He was the third-highest graded running back in the country behind North Carolina’s Javonte Williams and Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert, according to Pro Football Focus, and both those players entered the NFL Draft.

PFF senior analyst Anthony Treash believes Bigsby is “the clear favorite to claim the title of No. 1 running back in 2021.”

History suggests that Harsin and Bobo could lean heavily on him. Both have had years during their careers where they’ve rotated multiple backs. But when they've found a star, they typically turned him into a workhorse. Especially Harsin – his 1,000-yard rushers at Boise State averaged 250 carries per season and 167 more than the next-closest back on the roster.

Auburn hasn’t had a running back top 160 carries or go over 900 yards since Kerryon Johnson in 2017. Bigsby should snap that streak in 2021. He probably would have last season had it been closer to normal – he came up only 166 yards shy of 1,000 despite playing in just 10 games, all of which were against SEC competition.

And that was after not going through a normal offseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic or getting heavily involved in the offense until Auburn’s third game – he carried just 14 times through the first two. The second game of his career was against Georgia in Athens, a place where the program hasn’t found offensive success in years.

“This has been the longest season ever in my life. It's been a grind,” Bigsby said. “Not playing anybody out of our conference, it was different. It was tough.”

That shouldn’t be the case this year. The Tigers are scheduled to begin spring practice March 16. They open the regular season with back-to-back nonconference home games against Akron and Alabama State. There isn’t much running back depth behind Bigsby or experience in the receiving corps, so he should be the focal point of the offense from the jump.

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He proved he can be that when he averaged nearly 19 carries, 115 yards and more than a touchdown during a torrid four-game stretch in the middle of last season. He capped the year off with a 26-rush, 192-outburst in the win at Mississippi State.

Expect more of that in 2021. There is every reason to believe that Auburn’s Tank will live up to his name.

Auburn running back Tank Bigsby (4) celebrates after running down to the goal line at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.