Already close friends with Oxford High's Racean Thomas, Pettway said the two have already discussed rooming together once they arrive in Auburn later this year. Given that the pair are the only running backs the Tigers signed in their 2014 recruiting class, however, they’ll be forever linked whether they like it or not.
As good as Pettway is in his own right — the consensus three-star prospect ran for 1,402 yards and 17 touchdowns last year at Prattville High School — he hasn’t garnered the hype of Thomas. Named Alabama’s Mr. Football after running for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns last fall at Oxford, Thomas is one of the marquee names of the Tigers’ 2014 class. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn went as far as to call Thomas “a key” to the class as a whole.
Being overshadowed by his backfield mate doesn’t bother Pettway in the slightest.
“It hasn’t affected me,” he said by telephone Friday. “It’s just another stepping stone. It just provides a little more motivation for me.”
Despite Thomas’ numerous accolades, there’s one designation Pettway has all to himself: He was the first player to commit in the 2014 class, pledging to the Tigers before they even began spring practice last March.
It’s a point of pride for Pettway.
“It means a lot being the first one to commit,” he said. “I had faith in them when no one else did. Then when they started winning, everyone else wanted to jump on board. But it’s nice to know I was the first one there.”
The moment Auburn extended an offer, Pettway’s recruitment was over. A lifelong Auburn fan, he said he “knew that was where I wanted to be.” It was far more difficult for others to understand the decision.
That’s when the questions started.
“There were a lot of friends and a couple of coaches asking me, ‘Why Auburn? Why would you want to go play for a team that won only three games?’” Pettway recalled. “It was stuff like that. I just told them that I felt like Coach Malzahn was going to turn the program around, and I wanted to be part of that.”
Last year’s team got Auburn back on the right track, winning 12 games and the SEC championship and coming within 13 seconds of capturing a national title. Pettway knows it’s up to he and the other members of the incoming freshmen class to make sure there’s no drop off.
Just don’t call the bond he’s developed with other signees a “friendship.”
It’s more than that.
“The last few months of our recruitment, we became a brotherhood more than just friends,” said Pettway, revealing that fellow Alabama natives Thomas, Tre Williams, Deshaun Davis, Justin Thornton, Jakell Mitchell and Stephen Roberts were part of his inner circle.
A similarly tight camaraderie exists between Pettway and Jeremy Johnson. Growing up, he and the sophomore signal-caller often crossed paths in Montgomery. The pair still talk often, which Pettway said has helped prepare him for what’s in store when he joins the team this summer.
Johnson’s best advice?
“‘Just stay in shape and keep working out,’” Pettway said, “because when I get there, I’m going to have to do a lot of running.”
He just hopes a lot of that running comes with the ball in his hands.
Along with Thomas, Pettway will compete with returnees Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber (and possibly Johnathan Ford) for carries this fall. The coaching staff has informed Pettway that each candidate will be given an “equal opportunity” to win the starting job.
“Whoever works the hardest is going to get it,” he said.
As Pettway stands 6-foot-0 and weighs 220 pounds, Malzahn can’t wait to bring him into the fold.
“Just a big, physical, hard-nosed guy,” the coach said. “I really feel like he has great potential. He's a big man and he can run. He's got very good ball skills. He's going to give us a lot of versatility.”
Given his size and skill set, one of those options could include a move to fullback, where the Tigers are seeking a replacement for Jay Prosch. Pettway said the coaching staff has never mentioned a position change, and Malzahn confirmed as much, while not shutting the door on the possibility, either.
“Right now we're planning on playing him at tailback,” he said. “But he's going to give us some flexibility to move him around.”
How soon Pettway will play is still up in the air. The same goes for what spot he’ll man when he steps on the field. Not that Malzahn was worried.
Rest assured, the Tigers will find a way to showcase Pettway in the future.
“He fits in very good, “Malzahn said. “ … He's very strong, he's got great balance. He's going to give us a lot of things we can be creative with. He catches the ball really well and he can flat out run, so we're very excited about him.”