Over the next few weeks, SEC Country will take Auburn football fans to Summer School. Each session will focus on one position on Auburn’s 2018 roster, finding answers from spring practice and looking ahead to what might be the biggest questions for the fall. Let’s continue with the running backs.
- Kam Martin (Junior)
- JaTarvious Whitlow (Redshirt freshman)
- Asa Martin (Freshman)
- Malik Miller (Sophomore)
- Devan Barrett (Sophomore)
- Harold Joiner (Freshman — summer enrollee)
- Shaun Shivers (Freshman — summer enrollee)
SUMMER SCHOOL: QB
Answers from spring practice
Auburn doesn’t have a confirmed starting running back yet, but position coach Tim Horton said Kam Martin is the leader as it stands right now. It wasn’t a surprising call, given how Martin was the first-team running back in practically every drill the media were allowed to see during spring practices.
As Horton said, though, the Tigers have several months before they face Washington in Week 1 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. If Martin stays as the No. 1 running back, Auburn will need to feature a greater amount of rotation at the position than it had with the touch-heavy talents of Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway. Martin has made a move forward, but the race isn’t over yet.
Does Kam Martin’s experience really give him an early edge in the running back race?
Martin has by far the most returning experience of any running back on campus, and he put that to good use in the spring by staying ahead of the pack. Gus Malzahn and his coaching staff are big on veteran leadership. Martin definitely has that after two seasons of being a change-of-pace option.
The Texas native has put on “20 to 25 pounds,” per Horton, since he first got on campus. At 195 pounds, he’s small for an Auburn starting running back — but that hasn’t stopped him from being viewed as the early favorite. The word inside the program is that Martin made great strides in pass protection this spring, which is something he hasn’t done much because of his size.
Should the Whitlow offseason hype train keep rolling?
“Boobee” Whitlow was a popular name in Peach Bowl practices for his explosiveness at running back. He redshirted 2017 following a fall camp injury. And while he hasn’t had a single carry yet in a college game, his knack for creating big plays in scrimmages made him the breakout star of spring practices. He won’t truly live up to the hype until he does it in a game, but nothing is slowing the train from nearby LaFayette, Ala., down.
Numbers to know
2008. The last year Auburn football didn’t have a 1,000-yard running back was 2008, when Ben Tate led the struggling Tigers with 664 rushing yards. Since Malzahn first arrived on The Plains, Auburn has consistently been one of the best rushing teams in the country, and his year away (2012) still produced a 1,000-yard back.
4,023. Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway combined for 4,023 rushing yards in their three shared seasons with Auburn football. Martin only had 773 yards in his first two seasons, so the Tigers will be entering uncharted territory in 2018.
6.12. Martin averaged 6.12 yards on 74 carries in 2017. He was the first Auburn running back to average at least 6 yards per touch with at least 70 carries in a season since Cameron Artis-Payne averaged 6.70 yards on 91 carries in 2013.
Questions for the fall
Does Kam Martin have what it takes to be Auburn’s top running back?
This remains the million-dollar question for Auburn’s running backs. Martin is bigger, but there will always be concerns about his durability and between-the-tackles game. Still, Martin looked like a more powerful runner in the opportunities he got in 2017, and averaging more than 6 yards per carry over two seasons is impressive for any type of back in the SEC.
Whitlow and Asa Martin have more of the build and style of every-down backs at Auburn. More reps for them in fall camp could be enough to convince the Tigers’ coaches to go with one of the freshmen as the lead back. This will be the ultimate wait-and-see for Auburn’s offense in 2018.
How deep will Auburn’s running back rotation be in 2018?
Horton didn’t hold back in April when he said the Tigers needed to do a better job of rotating running backs. Johnson and Pettway struggled with injuries late in their respective starring seasons. Malzahn spoke highly of Auburn’s quality depth at running back, so riding just one top running back — especially if it’s Kam Martin — would make even less sense in 2018.
Martin would benefit greatly from being spelled by a bigger back, much like Onterio McCalebb did in 2010. Horton said Auburn’s backup plan right now would be “situational” running. The Tigers have all the running styles to make that happen. It’s just a matter of finally doing it.
Where do Miller, Barrett, Joiner and Shivers fit into the offensive picture?
On A-Day, an injury prevented Miller from getting a chance to show how much he’s progressed since a quiet redshirt freshman season. He didn’t have as much buzz as the other three main running backs. However, coaches like Miller’s experience — he’s also a third-year player — and he has the best frame for a third-down, ram the ball up the gut for a conversion situation.
As for Barrett, Auburn moved him to wide receiver, specifically a flanker position that is missing Eli Stove for the time being. Barrett looks like an ideal fit at the position, as has received almost as much as he’s carried the ball in his young career. Auburn coaches won’t say that it’s a permanent move and that he could still be a factor at running back. The 6-foot-3 Joiner and the 5-foot-7 Shivers both could make their impacts at wide receiver-type positions if they see the field as freshmen. But they’ll start with Horton.