AUBURN, Ala. — For Auburn football, the curious case of Kam Martin appears to be closed.
After giving four running backs carries in starter Kamryn Pettway’s absence in Week 1 against Georgia Southern, Pettway was the only back to take a handoff in back-to-back games against Clemson and Mercer. Martin, who had 136 yards on just 14 carries in Week 1, wasn’t a part of the ground game.
That Pettway-or-nothing strategy won’t continue, according to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn — and he specifically mentioned the sophomore Martin as a player who will get carries.
“Moving forward, you’re going to see some more running backs, Kam getting in the game and those other guys,” Malzahn said.
Auburn should have its full running backs group available for the first time all season Saturday night at Missouri (7:30 p.m. ET/6:30 p.m. on ESPNU).
On Tuesday morning, Malzahn said backup Kerryon Johnson “will be back” after missing the last two games with a hamstring injury he suffered in the second quarter of the opener against Georgia Southern.
Malzahn said the return of Johnson, along with Martin and redshirt freshman Malik Miller, will lighten the load for Pettway. The junior from Prattville, Ala., has carried the ball 56 times in the last two weeks — an attempt per game average that would rank fourth in the FBS. (Pettway hasn’t played in 75 percent of his team’s games, and that’s the standard for being included in the rankings.)
“Obviously, we’ve got to take care of our guys,” Malzahn said. “Now, KJ [Johnson] will be back this week, so that will definitely help with that. Kam Martin is a guy that we know can go in and do some things, and Malik Miller’s a guy we’ve got a lot of trust in, too.”
After Auburn’s 14-6 loss to Clemson in Week 2, Malzahn said the Tigers didn’t run Martin because of “the size of [Clemson’s] linebackers.”
The 5-foot-10, 182-pound running back then stood on the sidelines for the offensive snaps of a 24-10 win over FCS team Mercer, which was undersized up front. The lack of carries for Martin even surprised Pettway.
“I mean, I didn’t think coming into this game that I would play that much,” Pettway said last Saturday. “But I had to do what I had to do to help my team. … I am kind of surprised by it, but not too much. I was ready for it.”
Both Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey blamed the way the Mercer game unfolded as a reason for not running anyone other than Pettway.
“It was a close game,” Malzahn said, adding Auburn needed “the security of a veteran guy in there. … That was the thinking in that particular game.”
Auburn’s rushing production has dropped significantly over the last two weeks. Without Pettway, the Tigers rushed for 351 yards at a rate of 6.62 yards per carry against Georgia Southern.
With Pettway as the only running back, Auburn rushed for 0.9 yards per carry against Clemson and 3.4 yards per carry against Mercer. Auburn, which consistently has had one of the nation’s best running attacks in Malzahn’s tenure, ranks 89th nationally in yards per carry through three weeks.
“That’s my biggest concern right now,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “We’ve got to be able to run the football better. Obviously, Clemson has a great defense, and they shut us down in the run game. But last week, we didn’t execute like we need to. We’ve got to do a better job of executing in the run game because you get in league play, you’re going to have the football effectively to win consistently.”
Auburn hopes that will turn around Saturday night against Missouri, which has allowed an average of 172 rushing yards and 3 rushing touchdowns per game so far this season.
Cutting down Pettway’s volume and spreading the ball around to Martin, Johnson and Miller could be what Auburn needs to get back to its old ways on the ground.
“The fact that KJ is back will definitely help,” Malzahn said. “Then … you’ll see the other two guys on the field some, too. We’re sensitive to that with not just [Pettway] but any kind of player, the volume, if it gets to that point.”