How Auburn Freshman RB Roc Thomas Is Changing the Iron Bowl Recruiting Rivalry

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How Auburn Freshman RB Roc Thomas Is Changing the Iron Bowl Recruiting Rivalry
USA TODAY Sports

Months before Chris Davis returned the "Kick Six" to win the 2013 Iron Bowl, Auburn recorded a victory off the field against in-state rival Alabama.

Last August, four weeks prior to the kickoff of Gus Malzahn's first season as Auburn head coach, a shift in Alabama's football rivalry began to take shape thanks to one tweet:

Racean "Roc" Thomas, a 5-star running back and one of the state's top offensive recruits, made a verbal commitment to play for Auburn instead of Alabama.

At this point in 2013, the Tigers were coming off a 3-9 season in which they failed to record a single SEC win.

The Crimson Tide were the two-time defending national champions.

But Thomas stayed firm in his early decision to play at Auburn, a choice that he told the Anniston Star's Joe Medley received ample criticism from those around him:

Everybody doubted me. Everybody was, ‘Why are you choosing Auburn right now? They had a terrible season, a terrible staff. But you know, it’s good, because I can just rub it in everybody’s face now. They went all the way to the championship.

As his future college team went on a historic turnaround from conference cellar-dwellers to champions behind a top-ranked rushing attack, Thomas also racked up monster numbers on the ground that earned him comparisons to some of the greatest running backs in Auburn history.

“He’s almost like Bo Jackson how he could finish a run,” Thomas' high school coach Ryan Herring said. “You thought for sure he’d be caught, but he’d end up in front of someone who had a great angle on him."

The speedy and powerful Thomas shot up the recruiting rankings in his senior season with the Oxford Yellow Jackets as he ran for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns.

Rated the No. 5 running back in the country in 247Sports' final Composite Rankings, Thomas later became the second consecutive Auburn signee to win the state's Mr. Football award, joining 2012 winner Jeremy Johnson on the Plains.

"When he had the football, he was the ultimate game-breaker," Herring said. "At any time he can break a run and either win the game or keep the game close and give you a chance to win it."

Throughout the 2013 season, Herring said Thomas was "a hard commitment" to Auburn, and he "told people that up-front."

But rival Alabama, who was considered the leader for Thomas during his junior season, would not let the 5-star running back go to the Plains without a fight.

Shortly after he was named Mr. Football, Thomas was paid a visit from new Crimson Tide offensive coordinator and famed recruiter Lane Kiffin

The last time Alabama tried to flip a 5-star running back from the Tigers to the Tide in the offseason it was successful.

In December 2011, after months of staying firm with his Auburn commitment, T.J. Yeldon shocked the state by announcing he would enroll at Alabama the following month.

USA TODAY Sports

Although Kiffin's visit brought up bad memories for Auburn fans, "Roc" stayed solid with his decision to play for the Tigers and sent his letter of intent on national signing day.

"[Thomas] was very loyal to us," Malzahn said. "He could have gone anywhere, but he chose to not go anywhere and stay with us. We really feel like he has the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact."

While the high-caliber Thomas may make that immediate impact on the field in an offense looking to replace Heisman finalist Tre Mason, he has already made an impact for his new school off the field.

His commitment in August set the tone for a 2014 recruiting cycle in which the balance of power shifted in the state of Alabama.

Alabama finished the season with another No. 1 recruiting class, but the Crimson Tide did not have a dominant grasp of the state's blue-chip players like they had in years past:

4-star and 5-star Signees from Alabama
YEAR ALABAMA AUBURN
2015* 2 2
2014 6 4
2013 6 4
2012 5 2
2011 3 3
2010 7 3
2009 8 0
2008 8 0

247Sports.com's Composite Rankings (*2015: Current Commitments)

Although Alabama has had recent success in flipping players from Auburn such as Yeldon and former Auburn High School star Reuben Foster, the Tigers were the ones doing the flipping in the class of 2014.

Stephen Roberts, a 4-star cornerback from nearby Opelika, changed his commitment from Alabama to Auburn last November, days before the legendary 2013 Iron Bowl.

The number of former Auburn commitments who later signed with Alabama in the class of 2014? Zero.

"One of the big things I really appreciate also is the loyalty of our commitments," Malzahn said. "In this day and time, that’s very rare. We had guys that were committed to us even before the season that could have taken other trips, and they chose to stay very loyal to help us recruit."

Courtesy of 247Sports.com

While Alabama may still lead the country in securing top-ranked classes, the power is shifting thanks to blue-chip talent like Thomas committing their future to Malzahn and his Auburn staff.

The Crimson Tide no longer have the complete control they once had on the conference—or their own backyard.

 

Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.

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