AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football had the top rushing offense in the SEC last season, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Tigers’ running backs. Despite putting up strong seasons, Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson missed games with injuries.
Auburn has responded this offseason by easing the load on Pettway and Johnson. Pettway, who led the SEC in rushing yards per game in 2016, didn’t scrimmage or play in the A-Day Game in the spring. Johnson played in the spring game but left with an ankle injury.
Both running backs sat out Auburn’s first scrimmage of fall camp Monday, and position coach Tim Horton said that may continue the rest of the month. Horton added that Auburn’s scrimmage on Saturday could feature either Pettway or Johnson in a limited role.
“There may be a few snaps,” Horton said Thursday. “Now, there won’t be a lot. I’ve done it both ways. … Unfortunately, one year I was coaching at Arkansas and Knile Davis breaks his ankle in the first scrimmage. Boy, it’s a fine line, and you got to get them work and contact and getting hit and ball security.
“So, they’ll get some work, but it’s going to be probably pretty limited in terms of actual tackle-them, take-them-to-the-ground type stuff.”
Earlier this week, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said there was a “possibility” Pettway and Johnson wouldn’t be tackled to the ground in camp.
“We just felt real strongly right now we’ve got good information on those two guys — they’re both healthy right now — and the fact that those three other guys are good running backs in their own right,” Malzahn said. “We’ll see moving forward if we decide the second scrimmage or even the third scrimmage to get them tackled.”
Horton said Thursday that a plan for Saturday’s scrimmage hadn’t been determined.
Although full-contact reps might come at a premium for Pettway, Horton was quick to say the junior from Prattville, Ala., wasn’t getting less work than his star running backs usually get.
“Really, Kam Pettway’s getting the same number of reps that Tre Mason got, that Cameron Artis-Payne got, that Darren McFadden got, and whoever you’ve coached,” Horton said. “I wouldn’t say that it’s been less in any way, shape or form. In fact, he’s actually done probably more because we’ve been doing a little extra conditioning work after practice, just to make sure we’re where we need to be.”
The caution with Pettway and Johnson has led to more reps for their backups. Auburn wants to find its No. 3 running back soon. Sophomore Kam Martin, redshirt freshman Malik Miller and true freshman Devan Barrett are in the mix.
With this philosophy, Auburn is taking care of two key running back goals in camp — injury prevention for Pettway and Johnson, and development in the No. 3 race.
“I’ve never believed in one back getting all the practice reps,” Horton said. “I think part of developing your depth is getting your third back, your fourth back, your fifth back as many reps as you can.”
Fall camp injuries have already affected several Auburn players, including defensive end Marlon Davidson, defensive tackle Andrew Williams, offensive tackle Calvin Ashley, and linebacker T.D. Moultry.
Horton said the balancing act in camp affects every coach, regardless of position. But with Auburn’s returning talent at running back and its recent history of rushing success, the spotlight is squarely on the backfield right now.
“One of our main objectives is we’ve got to get our team to the first game healthy, and we’ve got some guys right now that are banged and bruised and that stuff,” Horton said. “You want to make sure you get them healthy but get some quality work, too. So, it’s a fine line, and we’re kind of on it.”